Being an omnivorous pastaphile goes a long way to explain my love for ragù alla bolognese. So deciding on the right composition for a vegetarian version was certainly a test.
I’m not a fan of meat substitutes that try to mimic the taste or texture of meat. Not being a vegetarian means I can indulge in animal flesh and have no desire to cook with something that is a bit like meat. If I’m building a vegetarian dish it’s going to taste like vegetables.
That said, there’s one foundational factor of a ragù alla bolognese on which I cannot compromise.
It needs to be rich!
With meat the feeling of “richness” is easy to attain. You just add more meat - particularly the gelatinous bits. With purely plant based ingredients you need to work a little harder, but this is still achievable with the right ingredients.
I start with a generous 75g of butter to slowly cook the base of celery and ground porcini mushrooms. I also add portabello mushrooms, tomato paste and whole plum tomatoes which are amongst the punchiest flavours offered up by mother nature. For the tomatoes, I deliberately don’t use the juice from the can as I want to minimise the liquid mass as much as possible. I’d recommend drinking the left over tomato juice straight out of the can. Delicious!
Still looking to dial up the richness I employ a trick often observed in Indian cooking. Indians are the masters of rich vegetarian dishes and the inclusion of onion slices, deep fried to a dark brown finish, provides the depth of flavour essential for this ragù.
Star anise, bay leaves, pepper, oregano, cumin, dulse seaweed, red wine and a sprinkling of demerara sugar all combine to give the sauce a stronger flavour to support the bulk provided by the green lentils.
So our ragù has reached the appropriate level of richness but, dare I say, it could now be too rich! In order to sustain this level of richness without each mouthful feeling like a chore, I need something to cut through it.
Acidity is one option, and very often used with ragùs but today I’ll be harnessing bitterness.
Bitterness is sometimes referred to as “the forbidden flavour” and is one most home cooks rarely understand well enough to contemplating applying in the kitchen.
Bitterness receptors are amongst the most sensitive in the mouth. It is believed they are an evolution that protects us from toxins - many naturally occurring bitter compounds are known to be toxic.
The bitter flavour adds that little hint of “zing” that compliments the rich ragù we’ve built.
There’s a few ingredients that will help us here. I’m using a couple of squares of the really potent 85% cocoa chocolate. You could add more but I’m trying to stay on the right side of the flavours here. I don’t want this dish to taste like chocolate, I just want it to add a background note of bitterness.
I’m also poaching my lentils in the contents of a can of Guinness. The lentils will absorb the flavours and act as another vehicle to up the bitter ante.
One experience I don’t want my vegetarian friends to miss out on is the light crunch offered by mezzaluna minced pancetta. When I recreated the official tagliatelle al ragù alla bolognese the slightly crunchy bacony bits were a revelation.
I’m going to be pushing for a similar feel with this vegetarian ragù, and will lean on fried panko breadcrumbs for the same effect. A little additional care and attention is added to this step as I first make a rosemary and garlic oil for my shallow fried breadcrumbs. I’m using extra-virgin rapeseed oil which is somehow both luxurious and almost flavourless at the same time. You could use olive oil too - olive oil is also bitter!
For this dish I’m also using penne. Penne is one of the “meatiest” pastas there is and performs extremely well with this ragù. A dollop of crème fraîche and we’re done.
The dish goes down as a huge success and does manage to capture everything I love about its meat filled cousin.
The flavour was epically rich, but with that mildly bitter tone to cut through. You could just about taste the chocolate but might not have done if you hadn’t seen it added with your own eyes. The crunch from the panko breadcrumbs also makes a very nice addition to the taste.
Even the most ardent carnivores should try this vegetarian ragù at least once!
The mushroom sauce can be refrigerated, lentils don’t tend to freeze well.
- 4 portabello mushrooms
- 10g ground porcini mushrooms
- 75g butter
- 250ml glass red wine
- 1 tin plum tomatoes (excluding juice)
- 2 tablespoon tomato paste
- 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 20g dark chocolate
- 15g demerara sugar
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- ¼ teaspoon cumin
- 1 celery stalk
- 2 star anise
- 1 onion
- ½ teaspoon fennel seed groud
- 2 bay leaves
- 25g green lentils
- 440ml Guiness
- 1 teaspoon dulse
- 2 tablespoons rosemary and garlic oil to velvetise
Rosemary and garlic oil
- 3 sprigs of rosemary
- 2 cloves garlic
- 200ml extra virgin rapeseed oil
Rosemary panko crunch
- 3 tablespoons panko bread crumbs
- 3 tablespoons rosemary and garlic oil
- Reserved mushroom sauce
- Reserved lentil ragù
- 2 tablespoon crème fraîche
- 320g cooked penne
Rosemary and garlic oil
- Pour 200ml of rapeseed oil into a pan and heat to a low heat
- Remove the skin from the garlic cloves and crush gently with the back of a knife to expose some of the inner part up the clove. Add to the hot oil
- Slap the rosemary in your hands to release the aroma and add to the hot oil.
- Keep the pan on a low heat for 10 minutes allowing the aromas to disperse into the oil without allowing the rosemary or garlic to burn.
- Allow the oil to cool to room temperature then store in a sealed container. You will have more than you need for this recipe, but the oil can be used as a dressing for other dishes.
- Finely slice the celery and cut the mushrooms into small squares. Set aside.
- Heat the butter in a medium pan on a gentle heat until it starts to foam. Add the celery and stir regularly for 5-7 minutes, or until the celery starts to soften.
- Add the star anise, mushrooms, and season well with salt. Continue to cook for 10 minutes as the moisture evaporates from the mushrooms.
- While the mushrooms are reducing, grind your dried porcini mushrooms in a spice grinder (unless you are using pre-ground porcini).
- Add the porcini and all remaining herbs and spices to the pan and stir well.
- Pour in the wine and vinegar and turn the heat up to a low bubble and allow to reduce by half.
- Once the sauce is nicely reduced, add the chocolate and sugar, and stir to combine as the chocolate melts and the sugar disperses.
- Add the tinned tomatoes and tomato paste without adding any extra moisture from the juices in the tin.
- Reduce the heat to very low and allow to bubble gently. The sauce should be thick and luxurious.
Rosemary panko crunch
- Pour enough rosemary and garlic oil to form a shallow pool in a small frying pan. Bring to a low heat.
- Sprinkle the panko breadcrumbs into the oil and season generously. The breadcrumbs should provide a salty lift to the ragù.
- Cook on a low heat stirring gently and regularly until the breadcrumbs have started to brown.
- Remove the breadcrumbs and set aside on kitchen paper.
- Grind the dulse using either a pestle and mortar or spice grinder. Set aside.
- Finely slice the onion and set a small pot of oil under a medium heat. Add enough oil to cover half an onion at a time.
- Fry the onion in two batches over a low-medium heat. The onion should not be allowed to burn but be cooked long enough to turn a dark brown colour.
- Once each batch of onions is cooked and coloured, transfer to kitchen paper to drain most of the oil. Wrap and squeeze in more kitchen paper if more oil needs to be drained.
- Peel and finely slice the carrots and set aside.
- Bring a pan of Guinness to a low boil and season well. Add the carrots, lentils and herbs and spices. Cook for 15-20 minutes or until the lentils are tender but before they start to turn too soft.
- Retain half a ladle-full of the Guinness sauce then drain the lentils and carrots in a colander.
- Return the lentils and carrots to the pan with and gently stir in reserved Guinness sauce, two tablespoon of rosemary & garlic oil and deep-fried onions. Remove the bay leaves.
- Cook the penne in plenty of boiling water, cook until al dente, drain and return to the pan.
- Add a ladle each of the mushroom sauce and lentil ragù with ½ tablespoon of crème fraîche per serving and stir gently. You may end up with leftovers of either sauce or you can blend the mixtures to your liking.
- Transfer to each bowl and top with a handful of panko crunch per serving.