Italian cuisine offers an extensive choice of authentic, regional dishes to the vegetarian and vegan cook. My beloved cookery book: ‘The Silver Spoon’ (a glorious 1263 page, English-language edition of Il Cucchiaio d’Argento, arranged very helpfully by ingredients) has been a magnificent guide: helping me enjoy a culinary tour of Italy, as I worked my way through the many delicious recipes which do not use meat.
Authenticity is a noble value for a cook – but sometimes a little fakery can be a wonderful thing too – and I do think there is a vacancy in the culinary world for a rich and satisfying vegan Bolognese sauce recipe. I imagine the Accademia Italiana della Cucina might come after me with knives for suggesting such a thing -but I live an awfully long way away from them, so hopefully they won’t track me down
It has been many years since I ate a ‘real’ Bolognese sauce, but I can remember the elements which I loved: the slightly dirty flavor and the faintly gritty texture of the ground meat. I have eaten many vegetarian versions, both in restaurants (watery, vegetable-heavy, overpoweringly seasoned with strong-tasting dried herbs) and ready-meal incarnations using ‘fake meat’ – which were so disgusting I would give up after two mouthfuls. There was no dirt and no grit – just sweet, rubbery pap.
For many years, I settled for a rather worthy, hippy, home-cooked, green-lentil creation. If you click on the link, you can find it hiding under a layer of sliced potatoes in my Lentil Cottage Pie recipe. It is perfectly pleasant and determinedly vegetarian-tasting – but is truly awful on top of spaghetti. The earthiness of the pulses doesn’t work (something about their firm little skins perhaps) and the vegetables are too forward in their pure, clean flavours. It is a grim and miserable affair when teamed with dried pasta. I would happily cut myself with a knife if an Italian caught me eating it.
For some weeks now I have been experimenting to try and create a dirty/gritty coupling of flavour and texture, matched with a rich sauce, where fresh vegetables would serve as a support act, rather than the main event. I made some vile, vile things and some passable things, until I decided to go rogue and start fiddling about with so-called ‘Superfoods’.
There has been too much chat about ‘Superfoods’ – the world seems to be full of sanctimonious, entitled quacks – rattling on about quinoa, chia, kale and cacao and the wonderful things they can do for body and mind. I don’t like the term ‘Superfoods’ and I don’t like the saintly status conferred on certain ingredients. I am sure these things are awfully good for you -but I don’t want to be preached at and have them forced upon me. I think there are foods and non-foods. Non-foods would be things like stones, bricks, twigs and pieces of lace; foods are things which we eat, which may or may not be good for us.
But desperation will make a cook resourceful, so I turned to the more unusual packets in my cupboard: a barely touched and fearfully expensive bag of cacao (which I had used to make some truly disgusting biscuits); half a pack of white quinoa. I sized them up and thought ‘why not?’.
At this point, my vegan Bolognese was a mirepoix sautéed in really good olive oil (and plenty of it), with a pinch of both cumin and cinnamon, some red lentils, red wine, tomatoes, tomato puree and a good sprinkling of dried oregano. Something about cooking with tomato puree and oregano took me back to my teenage years – to the times when I couldn’t face those sweet, watery pasta sauces in jars (which smelt of garlic salt) and instead would create something homemade: overpoweringly tomatoey and flavoured with fistfuls of dried Mediterranean herbs. My vegan Bolognese definitely called for some old school seasonings. The flavours of my sauce were fine and a good spritz of balsamic vinegar together with another drizzle of olive oil at the end of cooking got the fat and acidity levels right -but I still lacked the grit and dirt to make the dish perfect.
I added two handfuls of (rinsed) white quinoa to the sauce about twenty minutes into the cooking time and waited until the tiny seeds split and showed their little tails, like tadpoles evolving into frogs. Before serving, I stirred a heaped teaspoon of cacao powder into the sauce, which helped to darken the mixture, then spritzed it with my wonderful balsamic vinegar spray and finally drizzled with some really good olive oil. It was really delicious: gritty, dirty and juicy.
I may complain about superfoods and precious little darlings being awkward about what they eat -but it is important to have a fussy-person-friendly weapon in the culinary arsenal. Teamed with spiralised courgettes and butternut squash (whipped about in a wok, or more simply, blasted in the microwave) this vegan Bolognese should please vegans, gluten-frees, nut-frees and carb-dodgers. I am yet to serve it to an Italian -but I am prepared to try. I might hide all the knives in the washing machine first.
Clean And Dirty Vegan Bolognese
200g red lentils, rinsed and picked over to remove any little stones or dicey looking lentils
100g white quinoa, rinsed through a sieve to remove bitterness
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 stick celery, large strings removed and diced
1 onion, diced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Pinch of cumin
Pinch of cinnamon
Half a tube, or one of those adorable tiny cans, of tomato purée
I packet of chopped tomatoes/passata
1 large glass red or white wine
Olive oil: some decent enough stuff for cooking and then some ridiculously good stuff for finishing
balsamic vinegar (preferably in a spray bottle)
Spiralised courgettes and butternut squash in 50:50 quantities. Most supermarkets stock it ready made in packets -but obviously you can make your own.
This makes a large quantity: I would say enough for 6 normal people or 4 greedy ones
Cover the bottom of a large pan with olive oil. Heat over a low flame and add the cumin and cinnamon. After a few seconds add the chopped carrot, onion and celery. Sweat in the oil for about three minutes. Add the red lentils, stir and then add the wine.
After two minutes, add the contents of the tomato/passata packet. Fill the empty packet with cold water and add this to the pan. Make sure that the heat is fairly low (it should just be simmering, not going a great gallop). Add the oregano and tomato purée,
Cover and leave to cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the mixture looks like it is going to stick, or is getting a little too dry as the lentils swell, add some more water.
After 20 minutes add the rinsed quinoa to the mix and stir in. Again, if the mixture seems too firm or dry, top up witha little water. Cook for another 20 minutes, monitoring it carefully.
Once the quinoa has split and you can see a little ‘tail’ popping out of the bottom of the seeds, taste to check that the lentils and quinoa are cooked. Turn off the heat, season with sea salt (don’t be shy), taste again.
Add a heaped teaspoon of cacao powder to the mixture and stir through until melted. You should get a startling waft of chocolate, and the colour of the mixture will turn a pleasing burgundy.
Spritz the top of the mixture with the balsamic spray (or drizzle about 1 teaspoon of balsamic vinegar across the surface). Stir through and finish with a good teaspoon of your best olive oil. Taste, check for salt, and if you like, add some pepper. Serve with regular, boiled spaghetti or, if being completely clean-eating – pop a plate with a helping of spiralised courgettes and butternut squash into the microwave and blast on full heat for 3 minutes. Top with the vegan Bolognese and serve.