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.
It's a versatile dish that, like many good, simple peasant dishes, becomes increasingly tastier the day after. Some like to use half a tin of peeled tomatoes instead of the tomato paste or a glass of red wine. Pancetta can be added along with the soffritto (the chopped onion, celery, and carrot) for more flavor, but believe me, there is plenty of flavor without it. If you like, you can cook sausages directly in the soup or, for a vegetarian version, leave them out. Some soak the lentils for a couple of hours before starting to shorten the cooking time, but with this long, slow cooking method, there's no need to. —Emiko
Very gently cook the chopped celery, carrot, onion, and garlic in the olive oil in a casserole or soup pot over low heat until soft and the onion is translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook 2 to 3 minutes, stirring, then add the chilli and bay leaves.
Add the lentils and cover with the water. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook about an hour over low-medium heat, then add the sausages (if using) and cook a further 20 minutes or until the lentils are tender (add water if necessary).
Taste for seasoning and serve ladled into bowls topped with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. When reheating any leftovers, add some water to loosen the lentils.