Every culture has symbolic rituals surrounding the beginning of a new year, each of which focus on good health and prosperity; Italians are no different. New Year’s Eve marks a special celebration for Italian families; whether referred to as La Festa di San Silvestro, Sera di Capo di Anno or simply Trent ‘Uno food is center stage. Family and friends gather round the table to recall the blessings of the past year while looking ahead optimistically. There are regional specialties typical of local areas, but most Italian celebrate with one important ingredient, lentils. The tiny round legumes symbolize coins and are sign of good fortune in the year to come; it is said that the more you eat, the richer you will become. More often than not, the lentil dish includes cotechino, a large sausage, or a zampone, stuffed pig’s trotter representing the richness of life in the coming year.
Although la famiglia Levitt is not strictly vegetarian, many of the dishes we enjoy tend to be vegetable based. Lentils are part of the legume family, highly nutrious containing almost 30% protein and an excellent source of fiber. If you are not familiar with the Castelluccio lentils from Umbria, I suggest that you try them. These lentils are tiny, cook fairly quickly, maintain their shape and serve as an excellent base for any lentil dish. They are however a little more costly, but so worth it.
The soup is prepared in such a way that the flavors are layered and become intense without the addition of any animal fat or protein. The final soup is rich, complex with a hearty and satisfying mouth feel; even the most ardent carnivore will be pleased. Zuppa di Lenticchie is easy and inexpensive to prepare and can be made a day or so ahead of serving. The croutons should however, be prepared at the time of serving.
Buon Anno a tutti and may your year be healthy and prosperous.
- ⅓ cup olive oil
- 1 medium onion, minced
- Kosher salt to taste
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
- 1 stalk of celery, diced
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 Tbs. tomato paste
- 12 oz. canned plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
- 1 pound of lentils, rinsed several times with cool water
- 6 cups of fresh water
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups day cubed Italian bread, crusts removed
- ⅓ cup olive oil
- 1 plump garlic clove, peeled
- ½ cup Italian parsley leaves chopped
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano, optional
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Heat the ⅓ cup of olive oil in a heavy large stockpot over medium high heat, add the minced onions and sauté until lightly golden brown. Salt to taste.
- Reduce the heat to medium and add the carrots, celery, garlic & bay leaf, lightly cook until the vegetables begin to soften. The bay leaf will become aromatic, flavoring the vegetable mixture. Once the vegetable mixture is ready, stir in the tomato paste, cook for about 5 minutes stirring regularly. Add the plum tomatoes, breaking them up with a spoon in the pan and simmer for 15 minutes to create a flavorful base for the soup.
- Add the rinsed and drained lentils to the base, stirring to coat the lentils. Add the 6 cups of water, stir and bring to a boil. Once the soup comes to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, partially cover the pot and continue to simmer for 1 hour or until the lentils are tender but not falling apart.
- In the meantime, prepare the fried bread cubes. Line a large plate with paper toweling and gently heat the second ⅓ cup of olive oil on low in a large skillet along with the clove of garlic. Allow the garlic to remain in the warm oil on low for about three minutes, remove the garlic clove. Turn the heat to medium, increase the temperature of the oil and carefully add the bread cubes. Allow the bread cubes to brown on one side before turning. Once the bread cubes are uniformly browned, remove to the paper towel lined plate to cool.
- To serve: Ladle the hot soup into individual bowls which have been warmed in a low oven. Garnish with some chopped parsley, toasted bread cubes and a drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive oil. You may pass the freshly grated Parmigiano at the table, but honestly the soup is perfect the way it is.