Bolognese sauce is a classic tomato-based sauce that originated in the city of Bologna in Italy and is known as ragù alla bolognese. It is usually used to dress pasta such as spaghetti or tagliatelle, and to fill lasagna.
Traditionally, bolognese sauce is prepared with meat as its dominant component, and complemented with an aromatic mirepoix of onions, celery and carrots, and sometimes mushrooms and capsicum.
Therefore, it is quite a break from tradition to prepare this sauce without any meat, and the challenge is to create a vegetarian equivalent without compromising the mouth-feel and textures that the sauce is known for.
I’ve experimented with various ingredients and have perfected this vegetarian version that has become quite regularly requested at family dinners. The secret ingredient is the addition of eggplant that simulates the texture and flavour of meat, that as it cooks down creates a thick chunky sauce.
The other crucial addition is lots of mushrooms of different varieties that will add textural interest. I recommend a mix of fresh shiitake for its fragrance, cremini or button mushrooms for its sweetness, shimeji for its appearance, and enoki for its meat-like strands.
Because mushrooms do not break down very easily even with prolonged cooking, they give the diner something to chew on. I prefer to slice my mushrooms rather than mince them because I like the chewability factor, but you may mince or chop them if you prefer.
When asked which spaghetti sauce I use for the ragu, I actually just use fresh diced tomatoes and canned tomato puree. I find it doesn’t make sense to use a jar of sauce when I’m already creating the flavours with fresh ingredients. Moreover, a jar of sauce costs three times the cost of a can of tomato puree.
If you have a pressure cooker, after sautéing the ingredients, dump them all in and stew under high pressure for 20 minutes. That is sufficient to tenderise even the mushrooms into a soft silky texture.
If your pressure cooker allows you to adjust the timing, you can even get al dente pasta when you cook them under high pressure for 2 minutes. You’ll only need about two litres of cold water with a tablespoon of salt for 500 grams of pasta.
When the pasta is done, while it is still hot, plunge them into the ragu to coat and absorb all the gooey sauce. If the sauce is too thick, you can thin it out with a bit of the starchy pasta water, which will help the sauce stick to the noodles.
Finally, drizzle additional olive oil to add flavour and freshness to the dish of noodles. It can be served as it is, or if you don’t have to be strictly vegan, a generous sprinkle of parmesan cheese will make this a standout dish, even as the main course for your Christmas dinner.
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil + additional to drizzle before serving
- 1 bulb yellow onion, sliced
- 1 bulb fresh garlic, minced
- 2 ribs celery, diced
- 150g carrots, diced
- 200g shiitake mushrooms, sliced
- 120g cremini mushrooms, sliced
- 150g shimeji mushrooms, separated
- 200g enoki mushrooms, separated
- 200g eggplant, diced
- 70g red capsicum
- 70g yellow capsicum
- 70g green capsicum
- 500g fresh tomatoes, skinned and diced
- 450g tomato puree
- 450ml cold water
- 1 tsp salt to taste
- 1 tsp pepper to taste
- 15g fresh basil
- 15g fresh parsley
- 500g dried spaghetti
- Pluck the leaves from the basil and save the tender shoots for garnish. Chiffonade the large leaves and finely chop the stems, then set aside.
- Wilt onions, celery, garlic, carrots and basil stems in olive oil over medium heat until soft and translucent. Add eggplant and mushrooms, toss until soft and lightly seared. Add capsicum and tomatoes with the tomato puree and water and bring to a boil.
- Simmer over low heat for about 1 hour, stirring constantly to prevent burning. The sauce is ready when the tomatoes and eggplant have disintegrated into a thick sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Bring a big pot of water, about 3 litres, to boil with one heaping tablespoon of salt. Cook spaghetti for about 8 minutes until al dente. Transfer cooked spaghetti into sauce and toss until coated, adding pasta water as necessary.
- Toss in chopped parsley and basil and drizzle with additional olive oil until glistening. Serve immediately with a garnish of tender basil shoots on top.