Just like the American custom of dropping a ball of some sort, be it an orange in Florida or a sparking orb in Times Square, in some southern regions of Italy, all things which are old are discarded in riddance of all accumulated ill, and as an act of welcoming in the New Year’s fortune.
Italian New Year’s eve, you see, is all about superstition.
In tune with the average Italian theatrical and imaginative character, it is believed that the older the item thrown away and more exaggerated the gesture, the greater the amount of luck generated. So don’t be surprised if at midnight on December 31st you see an old dishwasher flying out a window. Napoli, being the drama queen of the boot-shaped Peninsula, besides an addiction to exploding firecrackers and home made fire-work bombs, is the city where at dawn on January 1st, the streets are a bizarre exhibit of jettison debris. Free vintage everything, from toilet bowls, old newspapers saved for the occasion, closet clutter, old rugs and tiles, stripped shreds of wallpaper, out-of-fashion clothes, old calendars, chipped furniture.
Legend has it that the fumes of alcohol and gunpowder fogged the minds of those who tossed 92 year-old Grandma Luigina from the kitchen balcony that time.
Another fortune bearing midnight exercise is that of eating three white grapes on the twelfth bell toll.
My favorite luck-endearing function is that of slipping on sexy bright red lace underwear right after midnight. Fire engine red underwear, or any foundation garment in close proximity to the serendipitous bottom, is said to bring money and lots of good sex in the coming year.
The most powerful luck engendering measure on Italian New Year’s eve is however the menu. The typical Capodanno (“head of the year”) dinner is one monumental good luck charm. It is composed of stewed lentils and thick slices of cotechino (lentils are said to bring money, zampone or cotechino, a large spiced pork meat sausage, represents phallic abundance), and some even delay dinner to past midnight so as to eat this palatable dish on the date of the New Year and not one minute earlier to avoid jinxing its effect.
The Cotechino originated in the province of Modena, a land of unhinged poetic epicureans, famous race cars, liberal politicians and generous foodstuffs. This fresh pork sausage is quite large, usually about 2 inches in diameter and 8 to 9 inches long. It is made from pork rind and meat from the cheek, neck and shoulder, and is usually seasoned with nutmeg, cloves, salt and pepper. The best cotechino is delicately flavored and has a soft, almost creamy texture.
I was fed this rich winter dish on a torrid mid-August day at countryside inn while on a film shoot and my liver still resents it. I later found out that in the nearby unconventional town of Castelnuovo Rangone, the mayor erected a statue to the town's most popular citizen honoring its annual sacrifice. A life-size bronze pig dominates the main piazza facing the church.
So, bearing in mind that on the night of December 31st, a timed combination of lentils, cotechino, grapes and red briefs will guarantee 365 days of bliss, here is my mother's recipe for Italy's typical fortune-bearing New Year's Eve fare. You have 3 days to get it together.
Cotechino e Lenticchie
- 1 kg (2 lb) pre-cooked Cotechino di Modena (a well stocked deli or Italian specialty store will inevitably sell it, especially around holiday season)
- 400 gr (2 cups) brown lentils (best if you can get your hands on the Castelluccio di Norcia or Santo Stefano di Sessanio variety - very tiny and delicious)
- 1/2 white onion, chopped
- 1/2 carrot
- 1/2 celery rib
- 1 meat bouillon cube
- 4 tablespoons unseasoned tomato sauce
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Next, wash the lentils twice in cold water – with this cooking procedure there’s no need to soak them.
Follow the manufacturer’s cooking instructions for the cotechino. Some notable brands of precooked cotechino (Fini, Citterio, etc.) require a minimum 20-minute boiling time of the air packed aluminum wrapped cotechino, but each maker applies different instructions. Once the cotechino is cooked, set it aside and cover it with plastic wrap. Do not refrigerate.
Wash, rinse and dry the vegetables. Chop the onion and leave the carrot and celery whole. Put the chopped onion, carrot and celery in a large pot with a splash of olive oil. Simmer lightly for 5 minutes over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add the lentils, bouillon cube and tomato sauce, stirring for another 5 minutes.
In a separate pot bring 2 liters (2 quarts) of water to a boil. Pour enough boiling water to cover the lentils. As it dries up, keep adding water as you would for risotto (without having to constantly stir), as the lentils absorb the liquid. You may not use all the water, or you may have to heat some more as the lentils drink up during cooking.
Guessing the correct cooking time of lentils is a challenge. It’s important to obtain a thick, homogeneous, solid soup. Lentils must be well cooked to a soft texture, but not puréed.
Wine? In order to degrease the rich character of cotechino, wines rich in carbon dioxide are best. These include Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, or Pinot Nero Spumante Metodo Classico dell’Oltrepò Pavese, whose vinification is white.
Slice the cotechino and serve over a bed of lentils. Possibly wearing indecent red lingerie.