Some cooks may balk at a vegan version of bolognese because it bypasses the beef and milk which is usually a staple of the Italian classic. But there is a special thrill in capturing the spirit of a traditional ragù without the traditional ingredients.
This recipe manages to achieve an equally rich and robust flavor and comparable complexity and comfort. It’s built like a Bolognese, but skips meat and dairy. To imitate the original, other options for the body and richness replace the usual components and perform their functions.
The foundation is the same: it builds up the flavor of the soffritto – the Italian trinity of minced onion, carrot and celery sautéed in olive oil until the vegetables are caramelized and their sweetness exaggerated – and brings together the acidity and sugar of tomatoes and vegan wine.
While standard Bolognese formulas rely on the meat – and its natural gelatin – to simmer and collapse to make the sauce silky and smooth, this vegan version gets its substance from chopped caramelized mushrooms and toasted nuts, and fortifies them with Balsamic vinegar, tomato paste, soy sauce and Marmite. An atypical Bolognese ingredient, Marmite is a popular British spread made from concentrated yeast extract, and brings salty and bitter notes that taste like golden meat. Like mushrooms, nuts, 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 gives body, flavor, and that precious richness that lingers on your tongue like dairy and animal fats. The result tastes just as lush, but also brighter, with a welcome boost of bitterness.
Serve the sauce over pasta (or in that Bolognese lasagna), and your guests might not guess that it’s meatless. But the lasagna? It has dairy products. It’s okay to draw the line somewhere. Although the line changes depending on who you ask for, this vegan bolognese is delicious enough for everyone.
Recipe: Vegan bolognese with mushrooms and nuts