Luck Be A Lentil

My family was one big walking Italian cliché over the holidays. We had 3 pies, 2 trays of cookies, and a bowl of red grapes for dessert ... for 12 people. We discussed making homemade ricotta for ravioli, as we sopped up leftover red sauce with Italian bread. We debated Aunt Marion’s meatball recipe: parsley or no parsley? We drank Chianti.

My mother even saved the red and white string I used to wrap gifts because it reminded her of the stuff they used to package old fashioned baked goodswhich she'd walk to fetch for her grandmotherat Harrison Bakery, in Syracuse. (Which, truthfully, I bought because it reminded me of the string used to tie up boxes of cannoli at Modern Pastry in the North End—Boston’s version of Little Italy.) In short, we all but broke out singing "Dominick the Donkey."

But it really hit home just how Italian my family was when I broached the tradition of making lentils on December 31st each year. Italians believe that eating lentils on New Year’s Eve provides luck for the year ahead. Since lentils are shaped like little coins and are often green in color, it’s said that they signify good fortune: a legume-backed insurance policy of sorts. And so growing up, my mother would make us lentil soup at the start of every year.

This year at the Christmas table, my grandmother piped in to say she still made lentil soup, as did my aunt, and my mom’s cousin: a tradition that my great grandmother brought over from Italy, 98 years ago.

I learned that long before I was born, it was also tradition for my grandmother to (try) to avoid the lentil soup if there was garlic in it (she doesn’t like it). My great grandmother would then enact her deny, deny, deny garlic-in-the-soup policy until someone inevitably found a large chunk. (I imagine she must have felt like her hands were tied, being handed a garlic restriction: why bother to cook at all?) She’d shrug, wrinkle her nose, and act confused as to how—precisely—the garlic got there. But she knew exactly how.

And how can you mess with a stubborn tradition like that? Though, in the interest of full disclosure, staying in on New Year’s Eve to make lentil soup—instead of drinking champagne and wearing an obnoxious amount of sequins—sounded downright depressing this year. So for good measure, I made sure to get my lucky lentils in on the eve of New Year’s Eve at Addis Red Sea, an Ethiopian restaurant in Boston’s South End. You just can’t take any chances when it comes to an entire year of prosperity. And the lentils they served were all I had hoped for: spicy and a refreshing change of pace, just what I wish 2011 to be.

But being a bit of a traditionalist—and a bit superstitious—I made sure to whip up a pot of lentil soup this week. Just in case. It couldn’t hurt to have a little added insurance; a little extra lentil currency to ensure good fortune and most definitely, unabashedly, some garlic in the coming year.

Italian Lentil Stew

1/4 cup olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp fresh thyme, minced (divided)
1 bunch carrots, diced (about 2 cups)
8 cups chicken stock, homemade if possible
2 cups lentils, preferably Puy
2 tsp fresh rosemary, minced
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
2 cups canned diced tomatoes, with slightly more tomato juice and less diced tomato
Kosher salt and pepper to taste, season throughout soup

Heat a large saucepan or dutch oven on medium heat and add olive oil. Add onions and cook until translucent, about 5-7 minutes, adding a pinch of salt as the onions cook. Add garlic and half your thyme and cook 2-3 minutes more. Add diced carrots and stir until combined. Add another sprinkle of salt and bit of pepper and cook carrots until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes more. Add stock, lentils, rosemary, allspice and red pepper flakes and cook for about 15-20 minutes. Add tomatoes/tomato juice and rest of thyme. Let cook for 10-15 minutes more and taste to adjust for seasoning. Continue to cook until lentils are soft but still retain their shape, about 10-25 minutes more.

Makes 9 cups

-The cooking time of the lentils will depend on the type of lentil you use and how old the lentil is. Adding an acid will also increase the time it takes to cook the lentils. So if you are in a hurry it may be best to forgo the tomatoes, as much as it pains me to say so.

-I am a sucker for Puy lentils. Technically, they are French. And I love them. They hold their shape wonderfully and have an almost nutty flavor. They are also charmingly dark green with little blue specks and were originally grown in the volcanic soil of Le Puy, France.

-This is definitely a recipe where you can take some major creative license. Don't dig the pine of rosemary? Use oregano. Or sage. Or whatever else you'd like. Though, it definitely helps to salt as you go with a recipe like this, adding it only at the end may make it taste more salty and not necessarily more flavorful.

-This makes a thicker, hearty soup/stew. You can always add more broth if you'd like to thin it out.

-Adding parmesan cheese will only help your cause.


  1. Your family sounds wonderful! I've never heard this about lentils and I think it is a wonderful tradition. In Korean tradition, we have something similar with rice cake and dumpling soup, which must be eaten on New Year's Day!

  2. Great recipe! Were making it this week.... I can use all the good fortune I can find! xoxo

  3. You're not alone in having allium-hating grandparents. My grandfather doesn't do garlic. Or onions. (A bit ridiculous: he comes from one of the major garlic-growing provinces of China.) I'm often at a loss when I cook for him.

    Cliche or no, it sounds like you had a delicious holiday season. :)

  4. hey emily! just discovered your blog - i have added you to the bostonbloggers.com blog roll :) hope you'll check it out and follow along for fun blogger events!

  5. i didn't know lentils were an italian tradition on new year's--very cool. we do the black-eyed-pea thing, but methinks i'd prefer lentils. let's hope my kinfolk don't find out about that! :)

  6. I had no idea about this Italian tradition, and I'm married to an Italian! I actually make a lentil soup that is quite similar to yours, minus the allspice. I hope that the soup brings you more good luck and happiness than you ever dreamed. Happy 2011!

  7. looks delicious!!! i LOVE lentil soup!

  8. While they can drive you crazy, its awfully nice to be surrounded by family during the holidays. I'm relatively new to your blog and rarely comment, but I wanted you to know how much I like the food and recipes you feature here. You keep your readers coming back. I hope you have a great day. Blessings...Mary

  9. Thanks all! Wishing you lots of luck (and lentils) for 2011.

    Adele, I heard this quote and thought of you this week: “What garlic is to food, insanity is to art.” Augustus Saint-Gaudens

    I know it probably won't change any minds about garlic, but it's nice to hear we aren't alone!

  10. Beautiful recipe! Although my tradition is not to eat beans or lentils for that matter on new year's, we too like a good lentil soup or stew in the winter (as you gathered from my own lentil post :)). Happy New Year!