Eating my way into New Traditions

cotechinoAfter a two-week vacation back to the states I have finally gotten over my jet lag and dived back into the Italian swing of things.  It was so nice to be home for the holidays, having the familiar all around me.  It had been over a year since the last time I’d been back to California and it amazed me at how easy it was to slip out of my Italian habits and back into my American ones.  Eating baked ham with yams (instead of pasta and lamb) for Christmas dinner.  Waking up in the morning and having a big American styled breakfast with bacon, eggs, pancakes, French toast, hash browns, and ham.  Trading in my tiny espresso shot for a mug of coffee.  This made me start thinking about how even if we live away from home we never really lose our old habits, but in some ways this makes it more difficult for us to truly embrace and appreciate new ones.  So, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to really try to accept some of these Italian traditions as my own and stop thinking of them as foreign ones.  After all, who’s to say that just because you didn’t grow up with certain habits you can’t make them your own later on in life and I think that after five years in Italy it is time for me to do so.  So what better way to do this than by having another New Year’s dinner Italian sskintyle upon returning to Italy.  What was on the menu?  What almost every Italian eats on December 31: cotechino and lentils.  Cotechino dates back to the 1500s in the region of Emilia-Romagna (also where Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano come from) when people needed to find other ways to preserve meat and started using the less “desired” parts of the pig.  While doing my masters I had the opportunity to see the process of making cotechino from start to finish.  So what’s in it exactly?  You basically use the left over parts of the pig that you don’t use for making premium sausages or cured meats.  Hence, the left over pork meat (the ones that are attached to the bone), pork fat (usually coming from the belly) and the rind are all ground up and mixed together.  Afterwards a variety of spices are mixed in (salt, pepper, nutmeg, cloves) and then it is filled into its casing (either the intestines or a pouch made out of the skin which is sewed together).  Hungry yet?  As unappetizing as it may sound, cotechino is actually quite good!  Nowadays many people buy pre-cooked cotechino that only takes about 20 minutes to prepare.  If using the real thing, it needs to be soaked in water overnight and then cooked at a low boil for 2 to 3 hours.  Eating lentils on New Year’s Eve is said to bring economic luck.  The more lentils you eat the more luck you’ll have so obviously it’s better to use the smallest lentils you can find.

A Cotechino Modena, sliced, ready to serve wit...

A Cotechino Modena, sliced, ready to serve with Polenta, and Lentils in sauce, as popularly served in Italy, especially around the New Year. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The traditional recipe calls for a “soffritto”, literally translating into sautéed, but it is actually a basic preparation that many Italian recipes use where you heat up olive oil and add some onion, a little bit of garlic, a carrot, some celery and salt and pepper and cook for about 5 minutes.  Afterwards you add your dry lentils and some water (about a 2-1 ratio) and bring to a simmer and cook for about 30-40 minutes until lentils are soft (adding more water as needed).  Coming back to Italy I felt that I needed to have this meal to start 2012 off on the right foot.  And it’s looking out to be a great year.  I have just been offered my first job in the food and beverage industry.  Was it my persistence and determination….or was it that kilo of lentils I ate last week?

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