December 31st, New Year’s Eve or Notte di San Silvestro for Italians. The night when we gather with loved ones, to celebrate and reflect on the year gone by, while looking forward to the year ahead. When red underwear is worn for luck, old objects are tossed out the window, fireworks light the night sky, tombola tournaments are held, tiny champagne bubbles sparkle in toasting flutes, and food is in abundance.
Whether dining in or out, indulging in elegant appetizers or casual meals, food is ever present and growing up Italian meant that certain pasti always graced the table. Traditionally foods like puree di patate (mashed potatoes), pomegranate, dried salt cod, dried fruit, grapes and struffoli (Neopolitan honey balls) are shared among family and friends, but one of the most common dishes served up on this night is a bowl full of lentils. These earthy legumes, that come in a number of varieties, are not only high in protein and iron, but also symbolism and heritage, making their consumption on New Year’s Eve integral.
Menus throughout Italy will all feature the customary lenticche e cotecchino or zampone, which are lentils served with a large spiced pork sausage (cotecchino) or stuffed pig’s foot (zampone). The lentils whose shape is reminiscent of the old Italian lira, represent money and as such augur prosperity for the coming year. The pork served alongside them symbolizes the richness of life in the year ahead, in particular the sausage, whose casing is said to represent the bags in which to hold the incoming money. Customarily the dish is served when the bell tolls midnight, one abundant spoonful per bell, for every month of the year.
Here in North America, the cotecchino or zampone is not as readily available and pork sausage can be used as a substitute. My twist on this time honored fare is a warm lentil salad that still encompasses the elements of lentils and pork, and can be enjoyed on its own, or as a side dish at fine annum. Buon Appetito e Buon Anno!
- 2 cans of cooked lentils (or you can soak and cook your own)
- ½ cup cubed pancetta
- 1 large red bell pepper diced
- 1 medium onion diced
- 2 carrots peeled and diced
- 2 celery stalks diced
- 2 tablespoons of Italian seasoning
- 1 tsp of balsamic vinegar
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
In a large skillet over medium heat, sautee the diced onions and pancetta in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil until golden. Next add in the peppers, celery and carrots and continue to cook until they have softened. Stir in the lentils and Italian seasoning blend and salt and pepper if desired. Once the lentils have warmed through, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the balsamic vinegar. Serve warm with an additional drizzle of olive oil.