Written by Alexa Weibel
Some cooks may balk at a vegan version of Bolognese because it bypasses the beef and milk that are usually integral to the Italian classic. But there is a particular thrill to capturing the spirit of a traditional ragù without the traditional ingredients.
This recipe manages to achieve equally rich, robust flavor and comparable complexity and comfort. It is built like a Bolognese, but skips meat and dairy. To mimic the original, other options for body and richness replace the usual components and perform their purposes.
The foundation is the same: It builds flavor from soffritto — the Italian trinity of minced onion, carrot and celery sautéed in olive oil until the vegetables are caramelized and their sweetness exaggerated — and gathers acidity and sugar from tomatoes and vegan wine.
While standard Bolognese formulas rely upon meat — and its natural gelatin — to simmer and collapse to make the sauce silky and unctuous, this vegan version gains substance from minced caramelized mushrooms and toasted walnuts, and bolsters them with balsamic vinegar, tomato paste, soy sauce and Marmite. A thoroughly atypical Bolognese ingredient, Marmite is a popular British sandwich spread made from concentrated yeast extract, and brings salty, bitter notes that taste like those of browned meat. Like mushrooms, walnuts, soy sauce and tomato paste — and, yes, beef — it has a high concentration of glutamic acid, which imparts a strong umami taste best described as meaty.
A swirl of olive oil lends body, flavor and that prized richness that lingers on your tongue the way dairy and animal fats do. The result tastes as lush, but also brighter, with a welcome boost of bitterness.
Serve the sauce over pasta (or in a lasagna Bolognese), and your guests might not guess it’s meatless. But the lasagna? That’s got dairy. It’s OK to draw the line somewhere. Though the line will move depending on whom you ask, this vegan Bolognese is delicious enough for everybody.
Vegan Bolognese With Mushrooms and Walnuts
Yield: About 6 cups
Total time: 1 3/4 hours
1 cup shelled walnuts (about 100 grams), chopped into pieces no larger than 1/4-inch (see Tip)
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 pound fresh mushrooms (preferably half shiitake and half cremini)
1/2 cup olive oil, plus more for serving
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons thick, syrupy balsamic vinegar (optional)
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (about 1 1/3 cups)
1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped (about 1 cup)
2 celery stalks, peeled and finely chopped (about 3/4 cup)
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoons dried oregano
3/4 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons Marmite
1/2 cup dry vegan red wine
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
Linguine, fettuccine or other long pasta (about 4 ounces per serving), cooked until al dente
Minced fresh parsley or sliced fresh basil, for serving (optional)
1. Add the chopped nuts to a large Dutch oven or heavy pot and toast over medium, stirring frequently, until they visibly sweat and become fragrant, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, transfer to a medium bowl and set aside.
2. Prepare the mushrooms: Stem the shiitake mushrooms (reserve the stems another use), if using, then wipe the mushroom caps clean using damp paper towels. Chop the caps into 1/4-inch pieces. (Resist the urge to use a food processor here, which will chop the mushrooms unevenly.)
3. Wipe out the pot, then heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high. Add half the mushrooms and 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, season generously with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 6 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with the toasted walnuts, then repeat with the remaining mushrooms and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds. Stir the soy sauce into the mushroom mixture, then the balsamic (if using). Set aside.
4. Wipe out the pot, then heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium. Add the onion, carrot and celery, season generously with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until starting to caramelize and brown at the edges, about 7 minutes. Stir in the mushroom-walnut mixture, garlic, oregano and red-pepper flakes, and stir until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and Marmite, and cook, stirring frequently, until darkened and caramelized, 4 to 5 minutes.
5. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until the alcohol cooks off and the liquid reduces until thick and sticky, 3 to 4 minutes.
6. Add the crushed tomatoes, along with 1 cup water. Bring to a simmer over high.
7. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are cooked through and flavors meld, 30 to 40 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons olive oil, for richness, then season to taste with salt and pepper. (Makes about 6 cups.)
8. Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package instructions until al dente. Drain, reserving 1 1/2 cups pasta water.
9. Toss the cooked pasta with the desired amount of sauce (about 3/4 cup to 1 cup per serving), adding pasta water as needed so sauce is glossy.
10. Divide cooked pasta among shallow bowls and top with more sauce. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with parsley or basil, if using, and serve immediately. (Leftover sauce will keep covered in the refrigerator for a few days, or frozen for up to 3 months.)
You might be tempted to pulse the nuts in a food processor, but beware: It’s easy to accidentally pulverize them this way. Small pieces will burn by the time all the nuts are properly toasted, so chopping by hand is preferred.