Pork Cotechino with Polenta and Green Lentils

I am often asked what the typical Italian Christmas dinner is, and the truth is: there isn’t one. Every family has their own traditions depending also on where in Italy they live, so it’s hard to pinpoint a specific meal and say with certainty that it’s what most Italians will be cooking up and down the country on 25 December. It is, however, easy to guess what Italians from Turin to Palermo will be eating on their New Year’s Eve dinner: lo and behold, I give you the cotechino.

Its origins are shared between Emilia Romagna, Lombardia, Veneto and Molise, all regions that suffer from very bitter winters. Cotechino (pronounced coteh-keeno) is therefore a hearty, filling dish that is served with polenta or mashed potatoes and always paired with lentils, which, according to the Italian tradition, bring good luck and prosperity for the whole year ahead. Cotechino is a sort of large salami made of pork meat, and its name derives from the word cotenna (rind). The traditional recipe consists of creating a salami of pork meat (in the past they used to stuff it with all the parts of a pig that wouldn’t get any other use) and wrapping it in pork rind, then letting it cook for several hours. Nowadays, however, most people buy the ready-made, precooked version of this dish, which doesn’t include rind and cooks in an airtight pouch for only 20 minutes. I served it with some instant polenta and tomato green lentils.

Pre-cooked cotechino as it is sold at the supermarket.

Pre-cooked cotechino as it is sold at the supermarket. The outer box suffered a little during transport.

I decided to introduce my partner, who is British, to this dish, and despite the initial hesitation due to the admittedly slightly startling description, he much enjoyed the richness of the meat. The very high fat content is not for the faint-hearted, but eaten once a year it’s a great tradition and one that I will love to keep up.

This recipe served three of us very generously.

What you’ll need:
1 precooked, good quality cotechino (I brought mine back from Italy, and bought it from the equivalent of the “finest” range from the supermarket Coop)

For the lentils

  • 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large golden onion
  • 1 stick of celery, leafy end removed
  • 250gr green lentils, soaked overnight to ensure quick cooking times, and rinsed
  • 2 very ripe, medium-sized tomatoes, chopped into cubes
  • 2 bay leaves, rinsed
  • 2 rosemary sprigs

For the polenta

  • 1 lt vegetable stock
  • 250gr instant polenta
  • 1 generous knob of butter
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Sorry about the steam, it was very hot and I couldn’t wait to eat it!

 Preparation:

Fill ¾ of a large sauce pan or a spaghetti pot with water, bring to the boil and put your cotechino, still in your sealed pouch, deep into the water, making sure it’s all covered.

In a large frying pan place your diced onion and celery and sweat in the hot oil to make a soffritto. Once the contents of the pan are translucent and soft, but not brown, stir in the lentils, bay leaves and rosemary and mix all well. Let everything bind for a minute or two and add the tomatoes and just a splash (about 100ml) of water. Bring to the boil and then turn down the heat and cover, letting simmer for about ten minutes. Once ready, add a generous pinch of salt and pepper and keep warm.

Bring the vegetable stock to the boil in a large pan. Slowly stir in the polenta, whisking continuously. Keep stirring over the heat for 15 to 20 minutes. You can add a little more water to make it the right consistency. Add in the butter, season and serve straight away, before it hardens by cooling. While you cook the polenta, take your cotechino out of the water after the 20 minutes’ cooking time very carefully, discard of the water and, once the airtight pack is cool enough to handle, cut it open with a pair of scissors and remove it from the meat, which should have a soft but firm consistency and the shape of a large sausage.

Once everything is ready, split a serving plate between the lentils and the soft polenta, and place the sliced cotechino on top.

Make sure you serve this rich meal with a medium-bodied red wine, such as a Merlot or a Bonarda.

All plated up.

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Mushroom Pork Escalopes with Sweet Red Cabbage and Diced Roast Potatoes

On a Saturday morning not too long ago I decided I would make escalopes for a nice late lunch. So off I went to the supermarket. I set off to buy veal for this recipe, but when I got to Tesco I quickly realised they had no veal, looked for lean pork steaks, and couldn’t find those either, so resorted to buying small lean pork medallions and flattening them at home. Pork meat works just as perfectly as veal in this recipe so that’s fine. I was actually quite excited about getting medallions in the end as that meant I’d get to use the very, very, very old meat pounder I nicked from my Grandma’s kitchen over Christmas. Here it is:

vintage meat pounder

If you don’t have one, you could always use a small metal pot or saucepan.

What you’ll need:

For the roast potatoes

  • 3 medium-sized Maris Piper or King Edward potatoes
  • 1 tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  • Mixed herbs
  • 2 or 3 sprigs of fresh lemon thyme

 For the sweet red cabbage

  • 1 red onion
  • 1 tbs oil
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ½ red cabbage
  • 2 tbs raisins
  • 2–3 tbs balsamic vinegar (ideally aceto balsamico di Modena)
  • About 100 ml water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbs butter
  • Salt
  • Black pepper

For the escalopes

  • 6 small lean pork medallions
  • 5 tbs flour
  • 2 tbs oil
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 2/3 of a mushroom stock cube
  • 100 gr mushrooms
  • ½ to 1 glass of hot water
  • 1 glass white wine
  • 2 or 3 sprigs of fresh lemon thyme

Preparation:

Preheat oven to gas mark 7/425°F (220°C). Wash, peel and chop the potatoes into fairly small cubes (about 2 in). Place them into a roasting tin and add the oil, herbs, lemon thyme and a generous sprinkle of salt. Place the tin in the oven and cook them for at least ½ hour, or until they are all golden, soft inside and crunchy outside.

While the tatties cook away, peel off the outer leaves of the cabbage. Now slice the half cabbage thinly (between ½ and 1 cm thick) and set aside. Slice the red onion and place in a pan where you’ve been heating the oil. Gently fry the onion until it’s soft and add cinnamon and nutmeg. Cook for another minute to let the spices release all their flavour, then add the cabbage, raisins, bay leaves, vinegar and water. Cover and bring up to the boil, then turn the heat down and let simmer until the cabbage is soft, which should take about 40–45 minutes. If the contents of the pan become dry and the cabbage is not yet soft, just keep adding water little by little to keep it simmering. When the cabbage is about five minutes from being ready, add the butter, salt and pepper and stir well to mix all the flavours.

While the cabbage simmers, it’s time to get started on that pork. Flatten the medallions to a thickness of between 0.5 and 1 cm thick. Flour them and place them in a large frying pan with the hot oil where you’ve been lightly frying the garlic. Sear them and cut the mushrooms into small pieces (if they are small enough you can slice them vertically so they’ll retain the mushroom shape and look pretty). Crumble the stock cube and add it to the pan with the mushrooms, the lemon thyme and a little bit of water. Let cook for five minutes or so and then turn the heat right up. Pour the wine in and let evaporate. Turn the heat back to medium and cook until the mushrooms are soft and the pork is done (which shouldn’t take longer than ten minutes, as the meat is rather thin).

Plate up and go.