In Italy, on New Year’s Eve, once the clocks strike midnight, a plate of warm cooked lentils is shared as a symbol and an augury to bring luck and wealth.
Lentils, the shape of small little discs, are said to represent coins, and the more you eat of them, the more prosperous and happy the upcoming year will be.
I’ve always enjoyed a symbolic small plate of lentils served just past midnight, but different regions have their own traditions. In Emilia Romagna for example, cooked lentils are served with a sticky cotechino sausage or zampone (pig’s trotter stuffed with the same filling as the cotechino). Cooked lentils are a great accompaniment to boiled or roast meat.
This year we spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Poland, following my homeland culinary traditions. But once back in our London home I made us a large pot of lenticchie di Spello (lentils from Spello, Umbria), just to be on the safe side.
There are so many ways you can cook your lentils, with pancetta or without it, with fresh herbs like rosemary, or just with a bay leaf. Recently I’ve been reaching out a lot for fennel seeds, and it’s how I’ve flavoured the lentils in the recipe below.
Note: I prefer to cook my lentils separately, starting by immersing them in cold water and bringing them gently to simmer. Should you wish to make just a one pot dish, add the lentils to the pot after you’ve fried the pancetta with the soffritto, but bare in mind, the dish will result in a stronger flavour and a deeper colour, and you will need a bit more liquid for cooking.
Place the lentils in a small pot, cover with cold water (2-3cm above the lentils) and bring to a simmer (with the lid on). Cook until the lentils turn just tender, about 15 min, depending on the lentils you are using.You could add some more flavour at this stage already: like a stick of celery, bay leaf or garlic to the simmering lentils, which is optional.
Once the lentils have turned tender (but not soft), take the pot off the heat, season with salt and let it rest for a few minutes.
Heat up the olive oil in a separate tall sided pan or a medium pot.
Add the chopped pancetta and fry it for a few minutes. Now add the fennel seeds, chilli and the chopped onion, carrot and celery. Season everything with some salt and fry, stirring occasionally, until the onion has softened.
Drain the lentils (leave some liquid after cooking the lentils), add them to the pot, increase the heat and pour in the white wine.
Once the wine has almost evaporated, stir in the tomato puree and pour in the stock.
Cook slowly until the lentils turn soft. Adjust the seasoning if needed. If the resulting dish is too thick, add some water after cooking the lentils, stock or just plain water.