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Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: Boost your good fortune with this auspicious Italian soup.
Put this recipe in the category of those that every home cook makes in his or her own way -- that same category that likely includes meat sauce, lasagne, and other long-time traditional classics. It's an ancient and essential recipe of boiled lentils that has nourished mankind for thousands of years. Some even say that it is the first prepared food that we have a written record of, from over 4,000 years ago.
Lentils are present on the table of many an Italian household around this time of year, but especially in central and northern Italy, where they have long been considered good luck to eat on New Year's Day. As an old superstition goes, eating a plate of lentils -- round and small like coins -- will bring good fortune and money to the family in the new year.
They can be stewed -- as in this recipe, but a little more reduced -- and served as a side to something meaty, like sausages or, especially in Emilia-Romagna and futher north, cotechino (a soft sausage-like salami). Or they can be soupier and eaten with a spoon. This lentil soup is very versatile and, like many good, simple peasant dishes, it becomes increasingly tastier the day after. So plan to make a big batch and, as Rachel Roddy suggests in this excellent article and recipe (an inspiration for mine), eat some today and save the rest for tomorrow.
Some like to use half a tin of peeled tomatoes instead of the tomato paste or add a glass of red wine; pancetta can be thrown in along with the soffritto for more flavor, but believe me, there is plenty of flavor without it. If you like, you can cook the sausages directly in the soup, or for a vegetarian version, leave them out and keep it simple.
More: Learn how to make lentils like baked beans.
Some people also soak the lentils for a couple of hours before starting to shorten the cooking time (add a teaspoon of baking soda when doing so), but with this long, slow cooking method there's really no need to soak them.
Serves 4 to 6
10 1/2 ounces (300 grams) dried brown lentils
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 celery stick, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
1 pinch of dried chili
2 bay leaves
6 cups (1 1/2 liters) of water
Salt and pepper to taste
4 to 5 pork and fennel sausages (optional)
Extra-virgin olive oil, for serving
Photos by Emiko Davies