Good Luck Foods for New Year’s Eve

Getting 2011 off to a flying start

New Year’s Eve is not my favorite celebration — all that Old Lang Syne-y, must-have-a-good-time vibe is a bit much — but there are two things I really enjoy: Champagne, and a lentil salad that we usually make to bring us luck in the coming year (it works better some years than others). It’s an Italian custom to serve lentils as the first meal of the New Year, and they traditionally dish them up right after midnight, just to be sure it IS the first meal of the year. Neither of us is Italian, but we don’t let that stop us.

In many cultures, legumes like lentils symbolize good fortune, and greens (kale, cabbage, collards and such) represent money, so an apres-midnight snack of, say, black-eyed peas and collards on the 31st will bring you both luck and wealth, as well as soak up some of whatever liquid refreshment you may have consumed.

If that doesn’t appeal, perhaps you can borrow from another culture to ensure a happy new year. In Spain, Portugal, and Mexico, the custom is to eat 12 grapes as the old year slips away, getting the last one down before the final stroke of midnight. (This also seems to require a chiming clock.) The Japanese eat buckwheat noodles for luck and long life, but you have to slurp the strands in one piece without letting them break for it to work. The Dutch go for donuts on New Year’s Day, because the symbol of the circle brings good fortune. (Many of us eat donuts all year long for the same reason, right?) In China, tangerines represent good fortune. You could hedge your bets and incorporate all those foods into a little midnight feast.

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The lentil dish we make goes well with smoked or spicy sausages (we often use kielbasa), but for the purpose of bringing luck, a few spoonfuls on its own should do the trick. It tastes best warm, but you can serve it at room temperature if cooking something at 11:30 in the middle of all the revelry doesn’t seem like a good idea. It’s a breeze to make. Here’s the recipe:

Warm Lentil Salad

2 cups lentils (try to get the blue-green French Du Puy lentils, because they hold their shape the best)
6 cups water
1 bay leaf
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 cup finely chopped carrots
1 cup ¼ inch dice celery
1 Tbs minced garlic
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ tsp salt
2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup chopped parsley

For the vinaigrette:
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 Tbs Dijon mustard

Put the lentils, bay leaf, and water into a large heavy saucepan, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 15 to 18 minutes. Stir occasionally. The lentils should be tender but not falling apart.

While the lentils are simmering, heat 2 Tbs of olive oil in a heavy skillet over moderate heat and add the onion, carrots, celery, garlic, and thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Cook the mix, stirring occasionally to keep it from sticking, until the vegetables are soft, about eight or nine minutes.

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To make the vinaigrette, whisk together the vinegar and mustard with about ¼ tsp salt and some fresh-ground pepper, then slowly whisk in the remaining olive oil.

Carefully combine the lentils and the vegetable mix, dress with the vinaigrette and sprinkle with parsley. Wait until about five minutes past midnight and serve!

One last thought, fellow foodies: Food pantries are stretched to the max these days. Many of us are thoughtful about these less fortunate over the holidays, but the need doesn’t go away when the decorations come down. Sending a few bucks to the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley or donating food to a local pantry could be the best way to create some good karma for 2011.

Here’s wishing you all a happy, healthy, prosperous New Year!

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