Pasta, Lentil and Sausage Soup For an Italian New Year
Wondering what's likely to be served on Italian tables for the traditional New Year's Eve feast or cenone di San Silvestro? Well, chances are that there'll be a dish featuring lentils, or as they are known in Italian, lenticchie. With their round, coin-like shape, eating these pulses is said to bring good luck and prosperity for the upcoming year.
One of the world's oldest domesticated plants, Italians have come up with a variety of ways to prepare lentils since the crop was introduced to the peninsula several millennia ago. Nutritionally-dense and protein-rich, these legumes were essential to keeping the country's once mostly peasant population nourished in scarcer times.
These days, you'll still find lentils used to make soups, stews, purees, salads, pasta and rice dishes. Perhaps the most iconic New Year's lentil-based dishes come from the region of Emilia-Romagna, where lentils are often paired with cotechino (a boiled, sausage-like salami made with pork, fatback and rind) or zampone (similar to cotechino but encased in a hollowed-out pig's trotter).
The following recipe combines the humble soup with the celebratory addition of pork sausages. To make this minestra, you'll need brown lentils such as the Castelluccio or Orsano varieties. These retain their shape and firmness after cooking considerably more than their red and yellow counterparts. Some people prefer not to soak lentils but this step really does help reduce the cooking time. With regards to seasoning, I've always used bay leaves but rosemary works nicely too. A leek could also be used instead of onion for the soffritto of chopped vegetables. Shorter, small-sized pastas such as ditali, tubetti, sedanini or mezze penne are best paired with the tiny but flavourful lentils. And yes, for a vegetarian alternative, simply omit the sausages.
Ingredients (Serves 3-4)
In a colander, drain lentils of their soaking water. Place in a large saucepan or terracotta pot, cover with water and bring to boil. Cook over low to medium heat for 15 minutes. Skim away any foam that rises to the surface.
In the meantime, heat some olive oil in another large pot, and sear the sausages so they are browned all over. Remove sausages and set aside. Turn the heat to low and cook the chopped onion, carrot and celery until rendered and the onion is translucent (about 10-15 minutes). Add the seared sausages, bay leaves, lentils and their cooking liquid. Bring to boil and cook, covered over low to medium heat for 30-35 minutes or until lentils are tender. Taste for salt and season accordingly. For a soup with a thicker, less watery consistency, remove lid and leave to simmer on low heat for the final minutes of cooking.
Finally, in separate saucepan, bring water to boil. Add salt, stir and cook pasta until it is al dente (as a general rule, if your pasta has an indicated cooking time of 12 minutes, take one, or, if you prefer it with even more bite, 2 minutes off). Turn off heat, remove saucepan from stovetop and drain pasta in a colander. Pour drained pasta into pot with lentils and stir until the pasta is evenly coated in the soup. Allow to cook for 1 minute on low-medium heat. Turn off heat and serve immediately with a little extra virgin olive oil poured on top.
Buon Appetito e Felice Anno Nuovo!