Every fall, a reminder pops up on my wife's Google calendar: Order cotechino. The New Year is still months away when that message arrives, but it's never too early to make sure we'll have a cotechino on hand when the calendar flips. Without it, our New Year might be cursed.
Cotechino is nothing more than a fatty sausage, but it represents so much more. Much bigger than your typical link, a cotechino is about the size of a small loaf of bread, but shaped into a cylinder. True cotechino comes from Modena, but can also be found throughout Emiglia-Romagna, one of Italy's greatest culinary regions, and it is made from pork seasoned with wintery spices like cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. Preparing it is as simple as letting it simmer in water for many hours, then letting it cool and slicing it into thick discs. The texture is soft but thick, even sticky, thanks to the inclusion of pig skin in the sausage. The unusual mix of seasonings, meanwhile, creates a heady aroma that fills the whole house.
Italians like to pair it with simply prepared lentils to ring in the New Year; the coin-shaped lentils supposedly guarantee you a prosperous year. It's a similar tradition to what you'll find in parts of the American South. My mother, born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, used to make ham and black-eyed peas on the first day of every year to bring our family good luck.
What's so special about this simple but luxurious meal? The memories: recollections of a long, cold afternoon in gray Venice waiting for a fresh cotechino to cook through, or sitting down next to the Christmas tree in Sarasota and clinking glasses filled with red wine with my wife, or the first time we let our sons try some and they gobbled it down and begged for seconds. My wife and I used to order one cotechino, split it and save some for another meal. This year, we wised up and bought two.
You can buy pre-cooked Levoni cotechino that comes packaged in a foil bag from Casa Italia, 2080 Constitution Blvd., Sarasota. To prepare it, just simmer the sausage, still in the bag, in water, according to the instructions on the box. To order a cotechino, call the shop at (941) 924-1179.
If you have leftover sausage, store it in the refrigerator and then, when ready to eat it, slice it into thick wedges, coat each cut side in microplaned parmigiano-reggiano and sauté the slices gently in olive oil until crispy on each side.