Many cultures have various traditions and superstitions when it comes to the foods served in the first hours or day of the New Year. The best and luckiest of foods to eat, they say, will help you to live long and prosper in the coming year.
Most of the traditions surround foods that symbolize money in the hopes that the New Year will bring promises of new wealth. Greens are popular because of their similarity to stacks of green paper money. Flat beans, like lentils, symbolize the rich wealth of coins. That traditional pork and sauerkraut you’ve served every January 1 in memory? The cabbage (sauerkraut) represents money, clearly, but the pork also has significance: pigs are not only robust, sturdy creatures (and the wealthiest of folks in history were also fairly robust), but when they root in the ground with their snouts, it is always in a forward direction, symbolizing a year of progress and moving forward.
And so today, I bring you a recipe that should theoretically offer you riches in the coming year, based on tradition: lentil soup. This is my grandmother’s recipe; although we never ate it on New Year’s Day, it contains two of the financial-themed ingredients above: lentils and greens. Our version was always vegetarian, but some like to add sausage to lentil soup, so if you throw in about half a pound of cooked bulk sausage, you’ll even have the pig component to the meal.
In addition to offering the hopes of prosperity, to me lentil soup always seems to be a bowl full of health. It’s delicious no doubt, lest you be turned off by my previous sentence, but everything in it is also very good for you. From the aromatics (garlic and onions have cardioprotective, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties) to the vegetables (supplying antioxidants that support your vision and heart and lower your risk of cancer) to the lentils (full of fiber, iron, and nonanimal protein) to even the olive oil (anticancer, anti-inflammatory, and pro-cognitive properties), everything is health, health, delicious health. I usually have lentil soup at least once a week throughout winter (tip: it freezes beautifully, so it’s great to keep on hand for a quick, healthy meal).
Finally, if I haven’t sold this soup enough just yet, I always turn to soups come January as a healthy way to detox after overindulging throughout the holidays. After eating too many rich foods loaded with fat and/or sugar during December, a warm, satisfying soup is the perfect way to help wean my body off of the junk I regret consuming now that the year is over. The right soups are light yet filling, comfort foods for the cold months that actually won’t pack on the pounds. Lentil soup is one of several reliable standbys that perfectly fit this bill.
Grandma’s Sicilian Lentil Soup
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1 large onion, chopped
2 large or 3 medium carrots, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
14-16 oz. diced tomatoes with their juices
1 cup lentils, rinsed
1/3 to 1/2 pound kale, Swiss chard, or spinach, chopped
4 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Black pepper to taste (or use cayenne or red pepper flakes if you like your foods to be spicier)
In a large soup pot, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add onions and carrots and cook until onions start to get translucent, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook about 2 minutes more, stirring frequently.
Add tomatoes, lentils, greens, water, and salt to pot. Cover and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and simmer slowly, stirring occasionally, for 50-60 minutes or until lentils and carrots are very soft.
Ladle into bowls and drizzle with a bit of extra virgin olive oil before serving.