Nigella Lawson Shares New Year's Food Traditions

Christmas has its traditional feast of turkey and trimmings, along with holiday treats like fruitcake and decorated cookies. But what about New Year's?

Other than champagne, and black-eyed peas in the South, you might be hard-pressed to name delicacies special to ringing in another year. But outside the United States, New Year's food traditions abound.

Cook and author Nigella Lawson tells Renee Montagne that she finds a "rather glorious symbolism" in food eaten specifically for the New Year. In Italy, for example, tradition calls for people to eat lentils.

"The reason for that is that lentils are thought to resemble coins and, thus, prosperity in the coming year," Lawson says. "And actually, once you look into that, you see how many cultures do look for that sort of symbolism."

The lentils are traditionally eaten with cotechino, a sort of salami-type sausage eaten hot. "I think, of course, it makes perfect sense the day after everyone's been carousing all night and drinking toasts — many a toast, indeed, to the New Year — it does make sense to have a meal that is largely made up of carbohydrates," she says.

Grapes also figure into New Year's celebrations in Italy and other European countries. Italians try to consume as many grapes as possible at midnight, which is meant to indicate a year of health, Lawson says.

In Spain and Malta, grape eating is more measured, Lawson says.

"You eat 12 grapes, and the 12 grapes you eat are meant to symbolize one for each month that lies ahead," she says. "And if the grape is sweet, it means the month will be good, and if, by terrible accident, you have a sour grape, you know that ... if the third grape you eat is sour, that March is not going to be one of your best months.

"And of course, I don't believe for one moment that a Spaniard or someone from Malta really believes that it will bring exactly bad luck, but I think you're doing something year in, year out, that your antecedents have done as well, and I think that's such an important part of human ritual."

Lawson says that wherever she looked, the general idea seemed to be abundance.

"When we're reveling in the holidays, it's really food for food's sake — abundance for its own sake to show just how wonderful it is to have this big feast — but at the New Year, the abundance is seen to be symbolic of the need, the request if you like, for abundance in the year to follow," she says. "So it's the only time I can think where having too much to eat is seen as almost a moral duty."

Recipe: Italian Sausages with Lentils

3-4 tablespoons olive oil (not extra-virgin)

1 onion, finely chopped

sprinkling of salt

about 2 3/4 cups (18 ounces) dried Puy lentils

1 fat clove garlic, squished with the flat side of a knife, and skin removed

8 Italian sausage links

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon red wine

1/4 cup water

flat-leaf parsley for sprinkling

Serves 4

To cook the lentils, put 2-3 tablespoons of the oil into a good-sized saucepan (and one that has a lid that fits) on the heat and when it's warm add the chopped onion. Sprinkle with salt (which helps prevent its browning) and cook over a low to medium heat till soft (about 5 minutes). Add the lentils, stir well and then cover generously with cold water.

Bring to the boil, then cover and let simmer gently for half an hour or so until cooked and most, if not all, the liquid's absorbed. I don't add salt at this stage since the sauce provided by the sausages later (and which will be poured over the lentils) will be pretty salty itself. So, wait and taste. And remember, you can of course cook the lentils in advance.

Anyway, when either the lentils are nearly ready or you're about to reheat them, put a heavy-based frying pan on the burner, cover with a film of oil and add the bruised garlic. Cook for a few minutes then add and brown the sausages. When the sausages are brown on both sides — which won't take more that 5 minutes or so — throw in the wine and water and let bubble up. Cover the pan, either with a lid or aluminum foil, and cook for about 15 minutes. Using a fork, mash the now-soft garlic into the sauce and taste for seasoning, adding a little more water if it's too strong.

Remove the lentils to a shallowish bowl or dish (I evacuate the sausages from their cooking pan, plonk the lentils in, then proceed) then cover with the sausages and their garlicky, winey gravy. Sprinkle over some flat-leaf parsley.

Excerpted from NIGELLA BITES by Nigella Lawson. Copyright (c) 2002 Nigella Lawson. Photographs by Francesca Yorke. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.

Recipe: Lentils Braised in Red Wine

1 carrot

2 cloves garlic

1 stick of celery

1 large onion

4 oz bacon

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 1/3 cups Beluga lentils

2 bay leaves

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 1/4 cups red wine

3 cups water

olive oil

fresh parsley, optional

Serves 8

Peel the carrot and garlic cloves and chop finely with the celery, onion and bacon, or process everything until finely chopped. Heat the oil in a large pan, and add the chopped or processed vegetables and bacon. Cook them over a gentle heat until soft, which will take up to about 10 minutes.

Tip the lentils into the pan and stir them around to get slicked with the oil and then add the bay leaves and Dijon mustard.

Pour in the red wine and the water, or enough water so that the lentils are just covered in liquid. Bring to a boil and cover and simmer for about 30 minutes or until just tender.

One of the good things about the Beluga lentils is they tend not to turn mushy, so there's less problem about overcooking.

When the lentils are cooked, check the seasoning and add salt if necessary and dress with a little olive oil as you serve them. If you are cooking the lentils in advance, simply take them off the heat, and put the pan in a cool place somewhere (say on a chilly stainless-steel surface or near a window out of the sun). Warm through the next day by adding a little water and olive oil and keeping them, covered, on a low heat until warm. Then, by all means, take the lid off and stir through with a wooden spatula to help them get hot throughout.

Transfer to a serving dish, tasting for seasoning and dressing with a little olive oil as you do so. If you want some freshly chopped parsley on top, scatter as desired. I rather like, however, their uninterrupted muddy blackness.

Excerpted from FEAST by Nigella Lawson. Copyright (c) 2004 Nigella Lawson. Photographs by James Merrell. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.

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