Monday, December 30, 2013

Ring In the New Year Italian-Style!

Contributor Jim Dixon of Real Good Food is one lucky guy…it just might have something to do with the way he rings in the New Year. Here he discusses a traditional Italian dish he makes on January 1.

Many cultures eat special New Year’s foods, usually things that symbolize good luck or prosperity. Greens are the color of money, long noodles mean long life, pigs root forward and herald progress, and round foods look like coins. That last one’s why Italians eat lentils (lenticchie) at the beginning of a new year, and if coin-shaped slices of pork sausage are included, that’s even better.

Italian lentils don’t break down during cooking, and that’s what I prefer. According to wikipedia, the difference between cooked lentils that get mushy and those that stay intact is the husk. But that’s not the kind of information you’ll find on a label, so you need to shop for specific lentils by type. The brownish, speckled lentils from Umbria are hard to find, but the small, dark green lentils often marked as French or du Puy can be purchased as most good grocery stores. Here’s how I usually cook them.

Lenticchie al Mauro

Mauro (left) is a grizzled farmer we met in the Umbrian hill town of Castelluccio, home of Italy’s best lentils. He admonished us as we were about to sprinkle Parmigiano over a simple bowl of lenticchie: "Solo aglio, olio, sedano, sale, e aqua. Non formaggio." ("Only garlic, oil, celery, salt, and water. No cheese.")

Sauté a couple of minced garlic cloves and a diced stalk of celery plenty of extra virgin olive oil over medium-low heat for a couple of minutes, being careful not to let the garlic brown. Add the lentils, water to cover (2-3 cups), and a good pinch of sea salt. Bring to gentle boil, reduce heat, and simmer 15-20 minutes or until lentils are tender. Adjust salt and drizzle with more extra virgin olive oil.

For New Year’s, add some sausages for Lenticchie all’Uccelletto con Salsicche:

Fagioli all’Uccelletto, or beans with tomato sauce, is a common Tuscan dish. Literally "like little birds," the origin of the phrase all’Uccelletto is subject to some debate. Pelligrino Artusi, in his classic 1891 cookbook "La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene,"* says it refers to the use of sage, essential in cooking birds. Others claim it acknowledges beans as the traditional accompaniment to roasted songbirds. Lentils with tomato sauce and sausage are also served in Tuscany and Umbria, but not usually tagged all’Uccelletto. I just like how it sounds.

While the Lenticchie al Mauro are cooking, cook 4-5 sausages (for this I like Salumeria di Carlo’s cotechino-style, available in the freezer at New Seasons) in a little olive oil over medium low heat, turning often until browned on all sides. When the lentils are done, add about 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. Place the sausages on top of the lentils, cover and cook another 10 minutes over low heat. Drizzle with more extra virgin olive oil at the table.

* Here's a link to get the English version, "Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well."

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