This is a delicious, nutritious plant-based variation on the Italian classic pasta sauce, ragù Bolognese.
While I don’t eat a vegan or vegetarian diet, an estimated 75% of the energy I consume every day comes from plants — one of the hallmarks of the Mediterranean diet. And while I don’t think you need to eat an exclusively plant-based diet for health reasons (in fact, this could be unnecessarily restrictive and lead to nutritional deficiencies), it’s fun to enjoy a plant-based meal every now and then — especially when you’re hosting a veg(etari)an friend or family member.
When I cook a traditional meat Bolognese, I build flavor by browning the beef or lamb, then sauteeing pancetta (bacon) with onions & garlic, and then sauteeing the vegetables and aromatics in the accumulated drippings before cooking the sauce under pressure (or in the slow-cooker).
When cooking a 100% plant-based Bolognese, however, it’s a little harder to replicate those deep, comforting aromas of meat sauce. “Umami” to the rescue! If you haven’t heard of this exciting flavor, here’s a brief explanation.
Umami is one of the five basic tastes, alongside sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. It is often described as a savory or meaty taste and is associated with the flavor of glutamate, an amino acid that occurs naturally in many foods. Umami is responsible for giving foods a rich, savory, and satisfying quality.
Umami can be found in various foods, including:
- Tomatoes: Tomatoes contain glutamate, which contributes to their umami flavor. Tomato-based products like tomato puree, sauce and ketchup also have umami.
- Mushrooms: Many types of mushrooms, such as shiitake and porcini, are rich in umami compounds.
- Parmesan cheese: Aged Parmesan cheese is known for its strong umami flavor and is often used to enhance the savory taste of dishes like pasta and risotto. Nutritional yeast — a vegan mainstay that supplies B-vitamins and protein — also is a rich source of umami flavor. Vegan “Parmesan” is made by blending nutritional yeast with nuts and garlic powder — yumm! (Recipe here.)
- Soy sauce: Soy sauce is a staple in Asian cuisine and is high in umami, thanks to its fermentation process. Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce (my favorite is Red Boat) is very umami-rich, too.
- Fish and seafood: Fish, particularly those like anchovies and mackerel, have a natural umami flavor.
- Meat: Beef, pork, and poultry also contain umami compounds, which are released and intensified during cooking.
- Fermented foods: Foods like miso, Worcestershire sauce, and fermented soybean products like tempeh are rich in umami due to the fermentation process.
- Green tea and red wine
Umami plays a crucial role in enhancing the overall taste of dishes and is often used to balance and round out flavors in cooking. To find out more about umami — in particular how it can zhuzh up plant-based dishes — visit the Umami Information Center.
In thie recipe, umami-bombs include tomatoes & tomato paste, mushrooms (dried and fresh), soy sauce or fish sauce (IMHO the latter tastes even better), red wine and Parmesan (or you can make vegan Parmesan; see link above).
Although lentils are high in protein by legume standards, they can’t match the nutritional profile of meat; that’s why I suggest serving this sauce with a higher-protein pasta like Barilla’s Protein+ pasta or a gluten-free legume pasta like Banza (chickpeas), Barilla’s chickpea or red lentil pasta. or pasta made with edamame (soy) beans, like this brand (this company also makes a wide variety of other legume-based pastas).
Morover, to keep the carbohydrate content of this dish at a level that won’t spike your blood glucose, I suggest you stick to the recommeded serving of 2 oz dry (or, if you have insulin resistance, 1.5 oz dry).
- 1 pressure cooker of Instant Pot You can make this in a regular stove-top pot; should take about 30 minutes' simmering time.
- ½ oz dried mushrooms for isntance, porcini or shitake mushrooms
- 1 cup (dry) French green lentils small, grey-green lentils sometimes called "Puy" lentils (e.g., here or here). If you can't find these, you can use regular brown or green lentils but make sure not to overcook them.
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion finely chopped
- 2 medium carrots quartered lenthwise and finely cubed
- 2 medium celery stalks halved lengthwise and finely cubed
- 8 oz cremini mushrooms coarsely chopped
- 1 tbsp garlic coarsely chopped (equivalent to 4-6 cloves)
- a pinch red pepper flakes
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tbsp Italian seasoning
- ½ cup milk or unsweetened plant milk
- ½ cup wine, red or white if you avoid alcohol, replace with ½ cup water or broth
- 15 oz chopped tomatoes (with their juice) canned or fresh
- 3 tbsp tomato puree
- 1 tbsp soy sauce or fish sauce
- ½ cup fresh basil leaves as garnish
- 6 tbsp Parmesan (freshly grated) or vegan "Parmesan"
- Place the dried mushrooms in a small bowl and top with 1 cup of just-boiled water. Soak for at least 10 minutes, ideally closer to 20 minutes.
- Check lentils for debris, and rinse thoroughly. Place in a medium pot and add enough water to cover by about 2 inches. If you like, add aromatics like a bay leaf or garlic clove. Bring to a full boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer, using a lid to help regulate the heat, and gently cook until almost done ("al dente"), about 20 minutes. Salt to taste. Remove aromatics; drain through a sieve and set aside.
- Once the dried mushrooms have softened and roughly doubled in volume in their soaking liquid, place a strainer over a bowl, line it with a cheesecloth, and strain the rehydrated mushrooms, reserving the soaking liquid. Coarsely chop the mushrooms with a large knife and set aside.
- Program the Instant Pot to SAUTE, HIGH, warm the olive oil and add the chopped onion, carrots, celery, chopped cremini mushrooms, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Salt lightly and sauté, stirring frequently, until browned all over; this takes about 10-12 minutes.
- Add bay leaves and Italian seasoning, milk, wine, chopped tomatoes, chopped rehydrated mushrooms, and drained lentils. Bring to a boil.
- Lock the lid of the pressure cooker and set it to cook on HIGH PRESSURE for 4 minutes. As soon as the cooking time is up, switch the pressure valve to VENTING to quick-release the steam (cover the valve with a towel to avoid getting sprayed by steam). If the sauce looks very soupy, boil it on SAUTE, LOW for 5-10 minutes to reduce it.
- Once the sauce has achieved the desired consistency, add soy sauce or fish sauce (whichever is used) and season to taste with additional salt or pepper.
- Serve over pasta (a serving is 2 oz dry pasta per person, which equates to about ¾ to 1 cup of cooked pasta). If you’re eating a low-carb or keto diet, serve on a bed of zoodles (zucchini noodles) or another low-carb pasta substitute.
- Dust each serving of pasta Bolognese with a generous amount of Parmesan cheese and garnish with roughly chopped basil or parsley.
- This sauce freezes well and doubles perfectly as a filling for shepherd’s pie (topped with cauliflower mash, for low-carbers). Gets better after a night or two in the fridge.