As most of you know by now, I grew up in an Italian American home. Most of the food that we ate came from that tradition. It was what my mother knew and what she was good at. Most meals revolved around some form of Italian food. The ‘big’ meal of the week was Sunday dinner, which involved salad, pasta, garlic bread, and an “all day” sauce. This blog post pays homage to those days, but puts an updated spin on things. Today I’m sharing a recipe that would have never been contemplated when I was young. Never in a million years would my parents consider make a Vegetarian Bolognese Sauce.
Although my mother’s uncle would call the tomato sauce ‘gravy’, everyone else we knew called it sauce. I didn’t even know there was a ‘debate’ until years later. Likewise, we didn’t use names like bolognese and marinara to distinguish our sauces. It either had meat in it or it didn’t. Even when it wasn’t a ‘meat’ sauce, our dinner meats were usually cooked in the sauce — meatballs or sausages mostly. Occasionally pork, and rarely chicken. That was good, because when I was young, I didn’t like chicken, and I especially didn’t like it cooked in a tomato sauce.
My mother taught me how to make what today I call marinara sauce — a red sauce without meat. I’ve added a few twists of my own as I have learned to cook more. However, the sauce I make today is still basically the one my mother taught me how to make many years ago. I still prefer oregano to basil in my sauce because that is what my mother did. She didn’t like basil because I can’t EVER remember having anything with basil when I was younger. I add finely shredded carrot as part of the sofrito, which she never did. I think it helps sweeten the sauce a bit.
Interestingly enough, though, my mother never taught how to make a meat sauce. In reality, that is because she rarely made a meat sauce. When we had meat sauce, someone else made it. My Dad.
Some time before I came on the scene, I assume that my mother also taught my father how to cook. Although he was the son of Irish immigrants, he learned to cook some pretty good Italian food too. I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t involved in making the Sunday dinner. Mostly his specialty was anything that had involved meat. He made the meatballs for Sunday dinner. He’d brown the sausages when we had them, and occasionally, he’d make the sauce too. And when he made the sauce, it was usually the meat sauce. And despite being a professional educator, my father never really taught me what he was doing when he made meat sauce.
Who Knew Watching As a Kid Would Lead to a Blog?
What I know from my youth about making meat sauce, I learned by being present when it was being prepared. I picked up some things, but I never discreetly said to myself “today I’m going to learn how they make meat sauce”.
Here is what I remember. When we did have ‘meat sauce’ it was made with ‘hamburger’ – my mother’s name for ground beef. Occasionally some other meat that looked like ‘hamburger’ but was lighter in color. I am going to assume the other ground meat was pork. I know it could have been veal too, but I doubt it was — I know now that we didn’t really have the means when I was a kid to buy veal. So I’m going with it was pork. Sometimes, my dad would also cut Italian sausages into three or four pieces and add those chunks too.
My dad would start with the pot like a regular sauce, and cook the onions and garlic. The smell of those two cooking still brings me back to my childhood. Then he would throw in the ‘’hamburger” and other meat. He’d stir those around for a few minutes (what I now calling “browning”), and then add the tomatoes. From there continue with the sauce as if it were the meatless sauce.
That’s it. That was ‘meat sauce’. I’ve since learned things like the term Bolognese. I’ve learned beef, veal, and pork are often all used. Some people add milk or cream to their bolognese to help thicken the sauce and tenderize the meat. And like most everything else in the kitchen, I’ve learned there is no one definitive way to make Bolognese.
Making the Classic a Vegetarian
So why make a vegetarian bolognese sauce? Well, for one, I have several vegetarians in my life that I still like to cook for. Two, the Elegant Baker and I, although we aren’t vegetarians, try to eat at least two vegetarian dinners a week. And three, I like playing in the kitchen and trying to adapt and create new versions of old recipes.
The recipe is pretty straight forward with just a couple of twists. There are a few key questions you have to ask when you are taking the meat out a such a classic and well known meat dish. First, how do you replace the ‘texture’ of the meat. That is the big chunky bites of ground beef that give bolognese its heft? The second question, how do you account for the loss of fat the meat would have rendered. You really can’t just skip that. The fat is what helps to give bolognese the delightful mouth feel that has turned it into a classic. And last, can you skip the dairy and still get a rich and tender flavor? One of the vegetarians is also lactose intolerant, so stripping the milk out is also important. It also helps to make this dish vegan if you want that.
Replacing the Meat’s Texture
To replace the texture of the meat, I use both mushrooms and the vegetables I would put in the sauce anyway. I start by adding mushrooms. I use crimini, but white mushrooms would work too. No need for anything fancy or expensive. You are looking for the texture more than the flavor. Since I want the mushrooms to represent the meat texture, I was particular about how to prepare them. I put them in my food processor and pulsed it 6 or 7 times until I got the texture I was looking for. What I wanted was something that was just slightly smaller that the ‘grains’ of ground beef would be in after it was cooked. I went slightly smaller because the mushrooms are now all basically mini sponges. The will all absorb some liquid and plump just a bit.
In addition to the mushrooms, I handle my other vegetables a bit differently. Normally, I would roughly chop my onion with little regard to accurate sizing. Italian food just isn’t that fussy. But here, I want to dice it with a bit more care and a bit finer. Again – I am looking to create a uniform volume with the vegetables to replace the meat. In a similar vein, I fine dice the carrots similar sized to the onions. Normally, I would shred the carrots with a microplane so they really disappear into the sauce. But this time I want to find them.
I don’t normally use celery in my tomato sauce. Some do I know, but I don’t. I have made an exception here. Like with the onions and carrots, the point is to replace the ground beef’s heft in the sauce. Also like the onions and carrots, the celery gets cut to a similar size. By time you add the mushrooms, onions, carrots, and celery you’re getting there. You have a pretty close approximation of the size and shape of ground beef and pork. You have now made your ‘meat sauce’ a vegetarian bolognese sauce.
When you add the tomato paste, take the time to stir it around to coat all of the vegetables. Once you’ve done that, let it sit, unstirred for a couple of minutes. You want to actually allow the sugars in the tomato paste to caramelize and the vegetables to brown a bit. Doing this brings a depth of flavor that might make you think the sauce cooked all day. In fact, this step is really important to developing flavor that you aren’t getting without the meat.
I also added some cooked red lentils to help with the texture. I chose red so they blended in better with the sauce. They also can get a bit ‘mushy’ when cooked, so they stir in easily. As an added benefit, they do help bring some protein to the sauce. Admittedly, the lentils don’t offer as much protein as ground beef would. But without the lentils, they sauce would really be lacking in the protein department. I think they add a nice touch and like the Vegetarian Bolognese Sauce better with lentils than without.
Replacing the Rendered Fats
But what about replaceing the fat. Bolognese is not only known for its meat, but its luscious mouth feel. That effect is largely created by the fat from the beef and pork. As the meats brown, those fats render, and then coat everything in the sauce with their softness. With no meat, you don’t get any rendered fat. The way that I replaced that was by starting with a much larger amount of olive oil than I normally would use. If I were just sautéing some onions and garlic as I began the sauce, I might use a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Here I started with a quarter cup of olive oil. That much olive oil coats all the vegetables. I aids in the softening process, but it also sticks around to help provide that unctuousness associated with bolognese.
Milk or No Milk?
What about the cream? Many traditional bolognese recipes call for milk or cream to be added. It supposedly helps with both the fat content, and with ‘softening’ the meats. The lactic acids in the milk act as meat tenderizes according to some. I have never really been sold on the need for cream in a bolognese. My parents never used it making ‘meat sauce’ growing up. As an adult, I have made it many times both with and without milk. Yes, it makes a bit of a difference. But personally, I would say it is only a marginal difference. I find it easy to skip altogether.
With that in mind, I don’t really find a need for milk or cream in a vegetarian bolognese sauce. The vegetables are much more naturally tender than meats, so they don’t need the extra help from the lactic acid. As for the extra fat, the increased olive oil takes care of that. Lastly, at least one of the vegetarians in my family is also lactose intolerance. All that – easy call. No milk, and I don’t think anyone misses it.
Turned Out Amazing!
There are my thoughts on turning traditional bolognese into a Vegetarian Bolognese Sauce. I recently made it for a socially distanced dinner with B. We had it with fettuccine I made using my own homemade pasta recipe. A nice homemade garlic bread and some Puglian Primativo. It was a wonderful evening and a wonderful dinner. It was difficult to tell that the bolognese was meatless. The texture of the vegetables filled in nicely for the meat. The extra olive oil provided the nice mouth feel. And the rest of the ingredients made for a wonderful sauce.
I suppose that one last point might be in order. It is probably not lost on you that not only is the Vegetarian Bolognese Sauce delicious, it is also a more budget friendly option. Even though ground beef isn’t outrageously expensive, I can assure you that a mushrooms are cheaper. The total cost of the vegetables is less that the cost of meats would be for this sauce. That isn’t the only reason to make a vegetarian option. And it is not
Vegetarian Bolognese Sauce
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 8 oz crimini or other small mushrooms
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 large onion finely diced
- 2 medium carrots finely diced
- 1 stalk celery finely diced
- 3 cloves garlic medium chopped
- 2 TBS tomato paste
- 1/2 cup red wine
- 2 14 oz cans fire roasted diced tomatoes
- 1/2 cup red lentils cooked
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 1 bay leaf
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- 1 TBS balsamic vinegar
- n the bowl of a food processor, pulse the mushrooms 8 – 10 times until finely chopped
- Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium high heat
- Add the mushrooms and cook until beginning to soften
- Add the salt, onions, carrots, celery and garlic and stir to combine with mushrooms
- Heat until vegetables begin to soften
- Add tomato paste and stir to coat vegetables. Allow to caramelize a bit to bring create some flavor in the sauce
- Add red wine to deglaze the pan. Stir and scrape bottom to remove browned bits
- Reduce wine by about half, then add the diced tomatoes along with their juices and the lentils
- Add oregano and bay leaf and stir to combine everything
- Bring sauce to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes.
- Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper to taste. Add additional oregano if necessary
- At the end, add balsamic vinegar and stir to combine.
- Serve sauce over pasta.