The first post in my “Exploring Italian Cooking” year long study. I am so excited to be on this journey to learn about authentic cooking and give recipes my unique twist. First up, inspired by the traditional meal served ed on New Years day in the Emilia-Romagna region. In my study of the regions of Italy, I am quickly realizing I have a special place in my heart for this one. Rich Bolognese sauces, fresh egg pastas, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Parma prosciutto all come from this area. This meal is believed to bring luck for the whole next year: a sausage called Cotechino served with lentils . . How funny that we have a similar tradition centering around a legume, black eyed peas, in the southern US. So many people eat black eyed peas purely out of tradition. Mix it up this year and try it the Italian way!
Cotechino is a very rich sausage produced from the addition of pork rind to the sausage. The sausage is extremely flavorful and hearty but also very difficult to find outside of Italy. I’ve never had it but this is my attempt to recreate the flavors but with ingredients readily available: proscuitto, italian sausage and ground pork. Also for those uncomfortable eating strange pig parts this will be more approachable. For a less indulgent meal, ground turkey or chicken and sausage could be substituted. I can’t be sure if it mimics the original but these meatballs were so good it doesn’t matter.Lentils with Sausage Meatballs Lentils modified from The Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan Serves 6
- Extra Virgin Olive oil
- I piece of good quality white bread, crust removed
- 2 oz pancetta
- 1 onion diced, divided
- 2 TBSP garlic diced, divided
- 1/2 lb loose mild Italian sausage or Italian sausage removed from casing
- 3/4 lb ground pork
- 1 TBSP chopped parsley
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 1-2 TBSP grated Parmesan
- Salt and pepper
- 2 carrots, peeled and diced
- 2 sticks of celery, diced
- 1 28 oz can good quality Italian tomatoes
- 1 1/2 cups lentils, Puy green lentils will work well**
- 8 cups chicken broth
- 1 1/2 cups short tubular pasta or small shells, I used conchigliette
- chopped parsley and cheese for garnish
**If you look closely at my pictures you will notice that the lentils look much more like chickpeas. I used something packaged as Coliforito lentils, which were supposed to be lentils from the Umbria region. I changed the recipe to reflect what I originally anticipated (lentils) and adjusted the cooking time appropriately
- Soak bread in 1/4 cup olive oil. This will soften the bread so it can be mashed creating the binder for the meatball. Many traditional preparation of meatballs use bread soaked in milk which is a good alternative, just make sure to add 1-2 TBSP of olive oil to the meatballs before placing in the oven. We had no milk in the house so I used this method and the meatball stayed moist. Once the bread has soaked for 10-15 minutes, tear apart by hand or use scissors or a knife until the bread is a very fine consistency. Squeeze out any excess oil with your hands.
- Heat 2 TBSP olive oil over medium heat. Add pancetta until crisp 3-4 minutes. Add 1/2 the onion and garlic, reserving half of each for the lentils, and cook until the onion begins to sweat and the garlic is fragrant, 2-3 minutes. Stir in the bread mash/crumbs for 1 minute then remove from heat.
- Combine with the sausage, ground pork, parsley and egg off heat. Stir in nutmeg, Parmesan, salt and pepper to taste, approximately 1 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp pepper.
- Roll meatball into 1″ balls and place on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. I made 18 meatballs.. The dough may feel fairly wet but as long as they stay together do not worry. If you struggle keeping the meatballs together try chilling the mixture for 10-20 minutes or add dry breadcrumbs but only enough to keep the meatball together. The recipe can be made up to 6 hours in advance to this point and the meatballs chilled in the fridge.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Bake meatballs at 350 degrees 20-30 minutes.
- Heat 1-2 TBSP of olive oil over medium heat. Add the reserved onion and garlic and cook until fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Add celery and onion and saute, 4-6 minutes. Stir tomatoes into the pan and cook until the oil separates from the tomatoes, approximately 5 minutes.
- Add lentils and add enough broth to cover lentils by ~2 inches. Bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and cook approximately 30 minutes until lentils are tender, adding additional broth as needed to keep lentils covered.
- Add 1 1/2 cups pasta to the lentils and and cook according to directions until pasta is cooked but still firm to the bite. The pasta will absorb most of the additional liquid creating a thick stew like consistency.
- Serve meatball on top of lentils and garnish with parley and grated cheese.