Time, or at least the numbers on the clock that mark it, is pretty arbitrary. Just walk around the house or office and look at all your clocks. How many of them are exactly the same? New Year's Eve is, essentially, just as arbitrary, a date plucked out of thin air by the Roman consuls in 153 B.C.E. Before that, New Year's was celebrated on March 15th. And even now, cultures that don't follow the Roman calendar celebrate New Year's at other times--near the harvest like Rosh Hoshana, or at the start of spring, like the Chinese New Year.
What makes New Year's special then, is how we choose to celebrate it: shivering in Times Square, at a concert, at a house party, and almost always with a glass of something sparkling in hand. For me, the best New Year's celebrations aren't on the 31st, a night that tends to be heavy with expectation (and subsequent disappointment), but rather on New Year's Day, when my husband and I gather with dear friends to cook up a traditional New Year's feast complete with cotechino con lenticche: cotechino sausage from Modena and lentils.
Historically enjoyed by Northern Italians after midnight to bring prosperity in the new year because the lentils look like little coins, the dish is salty and rustic, and ever so satisfying. The first year we made it, my friend Brooke Burton from Foodwoolf and I followed Mario Batali's recipe from Babbo. The next year we mixed the ingredients into a filling for homemade ravioli, and this year I'm thinking of riffing on Jamie Oliver's cotechino risotto, using the lentils as a base instead.
However the cotechino is finished, I like to start out cooking it in Prosecco (while sipping on a glass, of course) since it helps with the sausage's tacky texture. My favorite is the 2009 Silvano Follador "Cartizze" Valdobbiadene Brut ($24.99), but since I'll be using it to cook, too, the big bottle of Sorelle Bronca might be more economical (1.5L $34.99), especially if the neighbors drop by. I always make sure to have a bottle of the uber-sophisticated, non-alcoholic Raumland Sparkling White Grape Juice ($14.99), made from Muller-Thurgau, Riesling and Bacchus, on hand for anyone who doesn't drink.
Other fantastic pairings for the cotechino include the sparkling red Emilian classic, Lambrusco (my favorite right now is the Barbolini "Lancillotto"--$12.99--for both its affordability and compatibility). For something a little heartier, I'd try either of the Dolcetti from Bricco del Cucù. The 2007 ($14.99) is quite luscious, with deep black fruit and well-integrated tannins, while the 2006 "Bricco San Bernardo" ($13.99) had lots of dark fruit and spice, with fantastic acidity.
There are dozens of other fantastic New Year's Day culinary traditions--check out Epicurious's list of New Year's Day Lucky Foods--and equally interesting and tasty wine, beer or spirits pairings to go with them. But whether you're eating baccala (great with dry Sherry or white Port), rosca de reyes (try with rum) or collards and black-eyed peas (hard cider, anyone?), we hope you're surrounded by those you love. And we wish you all a happy, healthy New Year.