Lentils are one of the world’s oldest health foods. They were first planted in the Middle East in 8,000 B.C. They became popular in many cultures throughout time. The Greeks considered the bean a poor man’s food. Egyptians thought of them as food for the royals. Italians believed they could bring good luck and prosperity due to their resemblance to Roman coins.
Italians made a tradition out of eating lentils. Each New Year’s Day many Italian families gather together to ring in the new year with a bowl of “zuppa di lenticchie”– lentil soup, a hard bread, and a glass of wine. They often eat them with the pork sausage– “Cotechino”. It is perfect for lentil soup because it is meant to be slow cooked.
While lentils may not bring you prosperity, they are a very nutritious food. They are low in calories, high in fiber, rich in iron and folate, and an excellent source of protein. Lentils are also a great source of potassium and iron. Due to their high content of polyphenols, lentils may reduce several heart disease risk factors. They come in a variety of colors, but the most common, and beneficial is the green lentil which is used in Italian cooking.
Growing up, my father, who came to America from Italy as a young man, made lentil soup each year for our family to eat on New Year’s Day. This is our recipe; it makes enough for 8 people.
3 pounds of precooked cotechino (only if you can find it, you can substitute another sausage, chorizo works well)
3 cups lentils
8 garlic cloves, crushed (you can use less if you are not a huge fan of garlic)
3/4 tsp chili flakes (more if you like some heat)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tbs fresh oregano (1 tsp dry)
1 tbs fresh rosemary (1 tsp dry)
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
Red Wine vinegar (for topping individual servings)
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the spices and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the lentils and pour in just enough water to cover them. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Bring to a boil over high heat, and then reduce to a simmer. Cover, and allow the lentils to simmer very gently until they are tender and creamy, 1 hour or more. Be sure to check the lentils occasionally, and add water in very small amounts if the lentils begin to stick before they are fully cooked.
While soup is cooking boil the sausage for 30 minutes. Remove from pot. Pour the remaining olive oil into a large pan, and set over medium heat. Sauté the garlic and red chili until the garlic is light brown, then remove with a slotted spoon and discard. Immediately place the sausages in the pan. Cook the sausages, rotating them frequently, until they are lightly browned on all sides, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove the sausages from the pan, allow them to rest for a few minutes, then slice them into ¼ inch rounds.
To serve, place some of the lentils in individual serving bowls, and top each portion with a few slices of sausage and 1 tsp. red wine vinegar (Do not stir before serving).
Here’s wishing you a happy, prosperous, and healthy New Year.