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Can you make my vegan bolognese sauce any better?

I just made some "bolognese" sauce with lentils, tempeh and mushrooms. I am super happy with it, but wondering if there is a secret ingredient that would make it even more meat sauce-like. Dried porcini mushrooms, perhaps? Any other ideas? Or should I stop being such a perfectionist?!

Here's what I did:

Vegan Bolognese Sauce

3 T. extra virgin olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 small green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 small carrot, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 8-oz. package tempeh, crumbled
8 oz. cremini or white mushrooms, chopped
1/2 t. crushed red pepper flakes
1 6-oz. can tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 t. dried oregano
1 t. dried basil
1/2 c. dried red lentils
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
1 28-oz can whole tomatoes, undrained, chopped
1 c. dry red wine
1/4 c. chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 t. fennel seed
1/2 t. salt, or up to 1 t., to taste

Heat the oil over medium heat in a large dutch oven. Add the garlic, onion, bell pepper, carrot, celery and crushed red pepper, and saute for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn the heat up a bit, add the mushrooms and tempeh and cook for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Lower the heat back to medium, stir in the tomato paste and cook for 2 minutes more. Add the remaining ingredients except salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until the lentils are just tender. This usually takes 20 minutes, but I’ve had some lentils take an hour – possibly because my tomatoes were salted, which can toughen the lentils. So keep tasting it along the way to determine when it’s done. If the sauce gets too dry, add a bit of water. Add salt at the end of the cooking time. Serve on whole wheat spaghetti or use in lasagna.

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  1. Here I'm talking more personal preference than anything else, so take it with a grain of salt. But in my many vegetarian years, I always had a major aversion to fake meats of most kinds, and especially those that purported to imitate ground beef.

    So if your question is how to make this sauce more like the real deal, I'm not going to be of much use. But if you want to make it BETTER, lose the tempeh. It's a food I like very much for what it is, but I think it's a terrible substitute for ground meat. I also question what the lentils are going to do for you texture-wise here. They're mushy rather than chewy, which is what you want.

    Instead, try a block of frozen tofu, thawed, drained and crumbled. Or how about some dry-pack dried tomatoes minced? I can imagine those bringing tons of flavor along with the texture you're going for. Maybe even some raisins or other dried fruit? I'm pulling that out of thin air, obviously.

    And since I like bolognese with a little creaminess, some cashew milk would go a very long way here.

    2 Replies
    1. re: dmd_kc

      I recently had a chili made with smoked tofu, and thought it was excellent. Might be interesting to try a bit in your bolognese---it has a deep, meaty flavor that could mimic the bacon that's sometimes used as a base for the sauce.

      1. re: dmd_kc

        As an Italian-American vegetarian-in-transition (whew), I have to quietly wonder: why even bother so hard trying to grab the flavor of a dish that is completely defined by meat? Why not just expand and deepen your range of vegetable sauces--some, but not all, based on quality san marzano tomatoes, good olive oil, fresh herbs, and little fuss--spotlighting eggplant, zucchini, cauliflower (sauteed till almost a cream with hot pepper, garlic, saffron, raisins, pine notes, topped with toasted bread crumbs, say. There are scores of them. I've incorporated at least one hearty lentil and pasta dish into our weekly menu (Lidia Bastianich has a delicious and easy lentil, vegetable, garlic, and tomato "sauce" that marries amazingly well with parsley and short, stubby pasta). Or just a mix of fresh mushrooms hard-sauteed with garlic, thyme, crushed red pepper, a little marsala, and a shower of parsley and, yes, toasted breadcrumbs. I appreciate the desire to keep connected to specific pleasures, but it might be that some things were just not meant to be. Hope this helps.

      2. That looks really good.

        If you triple the tempeh and drop the lentils, you'll get a deeper taste and more consistent mouthfeel. The questioned mandate was to mimic the bolognese.

        Where are the dried Shiitake, that are rehydrated then diced? I find them better than porcini, based on price, depth, and uniformity in creating the duxelle.

        Some dark soy will also help. Substitute for salt. Or Bragg's if you prefer; they both offer the breakdown of the amino acids to the umami.

        Brown the tomato paste in some of the oil to develop depth, and add the fennel seed during that browning. The fennel should be crushed to expose their aromatics. And fennel is one of those things that are akin to cilanro, in that some folks have an aversion. Find your level, and then henceforth max it out.

        If you are a garlic lover, consider the full range of these 4 types: 1) dried granulated 2) minced and sauteed in oil, the classic 3) roasted cloves, reduced to paste 4) minced raw garlic, added without sauteeing to the sauce as it is near finishing. These 4 types give you a fuller range of sulfur compounds that are available over different temperature/time regimes.

        1 Reply
        1. re: FoodFuser

          lol, I should have read more carefully because I just offered almost exactly this advice further down. It's all about the umami glutamates and the sulfur compounds. And I'm also a big fan of having a combination of raw and cooked garlic in my pasta sauces (although a little raw garlic goes a long way!)

        2. How about eggplant? I'd peel it and dice it pretty finely, the saute it in with the other veggies and let it get nice and soft, the way that meat does in a bolognese. I also agree with the cashew milk, or another vegan milk subsitute. Traditionally bolognese sauce cooks the meat in milk to make it really melt apart and tenderize, so there is always some clear cream flavor. Otherwise it's just meat sauce. You might be missing that.

          1. add meat? hahaha, ok, I crack myself up and I didn't mean to offend.

            my traditional meat bolgnese requires simmering the meat in wine and then cream, successively. you can't do cream, but add some red wine and reduce it before you add any liquids. I think eggplant and dried shiitake are good ideas. traditional bolognese is more about meat than tomato, but I am not sure how that works in a veg style.

            1. Hi:
              You could try bulgur wheat, reconstituted in some kind of tasty, umami-filled broth (e.g. mushroom stock or similar). It is not a fake product, and does an astonishingly good job of imitating the texture of ground meat in such dishes. After that, simmering it for a while in the rest of your yummy sauce should infuse the flavours into it.
              You could also try TVP crumbles, which again are very good for such dishes, as fakes. But if you want to avoid fake meats, then the bulgur is definitely worth a try.

              I use the bulgur in vegetarian chili and it is fantastically good.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Rasam

                I second the mushroom broth. The richness that meat contributes to a dish is largely due to the glutamates (the source of "umami") and the sulphur compounds found in it. Mushrooms have a lot of glutamate, so I would definitely try a good mushroom stock (and also some dried porcinis, which many people even add to regular bologneses.) Also, why not replace some or all of the salt with some soy sauce, which also has a lot of glutamate and is also a great source of umami. With all the other bold flavors in the sauce, soy sauce won't cause it to taste "Asian", it will just add depth of flavor and richness. I've used this trick before. (I am a "flexitarian", so I cook veggie food a lot.)

                Also, I would add a lot more garlic. Alliums (the garlic and onion family) are full of sulphur compounds which are another component in "meaty" flavor. And garlic is delicious! Some of this is personal taste of course, but when I make pasta sauce in the amounts you're describing I always add a LOT more than 3 cloves.

                1. re: Rasam

                  i second the TVP. it adds toothsomeness like ground meat crumbles, with no real taste of its own to alter your sauce as is.

                2. -Nutmeg
                  -Don't use mock meats -- agree lentils might get you in a better direction

                  1. My partner makes an amazing vegetarian bolognese sauce. I'm not sure of the specific recipe since it lives in his head, but his trick is to add a big splash of balsalmic vinegar at the end. He says it adds flavor and slightly changes the texture of the fake meat (he uses soy italian sausages" and vegetarian meatballs from Trader Joe's - I am not 100% sure as to whether or not these are vegan so definitely double-check if you consider using them.) I think he also uses more garlic than your recipe currently calls for - like 6 cloves for a big pot maybe?

                    Regardless, your current recipe sounds delicious!

                    1. Wow, lots of good suggestions. I do really love the texture of the tempeh in it, so maybe I will try more tempeh and lose the lentils. And eggplant, soy sauce, multiple types of garlic, dried shiitakes and cashew milk sound promising, too. I will try some variations and report back!

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: cathyeats

                        I hope you're browning the tempeh in some oil. It richens its meat-like aroma.

                        Nut milk is a great idea. If you have a soy-milk maker, you can make milk from the richer nuts like cashew almond walnut.

                        Reviewing the spices/herbs: do you have time for some dried thyme?

                      2. I'd double (triple) the amount cremini mushrooms and cook them separately using duxelle recipe/technique that is vegan friendly (e.g no butter/cream). Then add them into your sauce.

                        Basically, you are cooking the water out of the mushrooms and concentrating their "meaty" flavor.

                        1. At the Chinese market they sell soy-dried tofu. Cut it up then use food processor (or knife) to mince to 1/8". That'll add a wonderful character to your sauce and it's not as "glossy" tasting as the "fake meat" that's so common these days.

                          I agree with the poster who said ditch the tempeh. No disrespect.

                          Up the red lentils and add some plain old funky lentils. Lentils are great!

                          Put a quartered potato in the pot. When the quarters finish cooking, scoop them out and whiz in food processor to puree. Add some of the soup to loosen it up, then put the whole mixture back in the soup. The mouthfeel and vague flavor you get are worth it.

                          1. Great ideas here already (especially the eggplant, dried mushrooms, and bulgar wheat in mushroom stock.) I would also substitute fresh herbs for the dried oregena and basil and maybe even fennel (3x fresh herbs = 1x dried), farmer's market tomatoes for the canned tomatoes, and one clove of garlic per serving (this looks like 6 cloves to me).

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: ElissaInPlaya

                              I don't know, this time of year, the canned tomatoes might be your better bet. June tomatoes will probably be hothouse tomatoes, which are not as good as the tomatoes of true late-summer/fall tomato season in my opinion. That's the only time of year I use fresh tomatoes. Otherwise, a good quality canned tomato works great. Nothing wrong with canned tomatoes. They are canned at peak ripeness. Look for a good Italian brand of San Marzano tomatoes, if you can. They are excellent sauce tomatoes and have a wonderful flavor.

                              1. re: Lady_Tenar

                                Good point. I guess it depends on where you live. In California we have good tomatoes now.

                            2. I find the most meat-like mushroom in both flavor and texture to be portabella - have you tried roasting a few (perhaps in a little soy and balsamic to get the mouth-feel and flavor of something smokier) and chopping them in?

                              1. Lose the tempeh and add mushrooms... I'm with dmd_kc about the "mock meat" items.

                                Now the big ????.... are you a vegan or are you making this for someone else who is? If you are a meat-eater then I don't think that you'll ever really create the meaty taste of a true bolognese without meat and dairy. However if you are making this for someone else who has different expectations of what it should taste like (or perhaps has never had true bolognese before) why not think of this as a really hearty veggie sauce? Your taste of it may be clouded by what you *think* it should taste like, not what it does taste like. And from the looks of your recipe, it probably tastes pretty good (without tempeh, sorry I just don't like it.)

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: iluvcookies

                                  To answer your question, no I'm not a vegan. I used to be a big meat eater, in fact, but had to quit for health reasons (long story .... on my blog if you're interested.) So I'm not making it for any vegans. Just for myself, a meat lover who doesn't like feeling deprived!

                                  And I hear you about the tempeh - I am not a fan of tempeh in general. I rarely eat the stuff plain or anything. But here, it seems to work. But I totally get the tempeh dissers out there.

                                2. I realise this is such an old thread, but it's such an important dish in my repertoire that I wanted to comment.

                                  Tasty, delicious vegan bolognese is definitely possible. Most of my tips come from the wonderful Bryanna Clark Grogan's vegan cookbook - "Nonna's Italian Kitchen". Bryanna includes a recipe for a delicious, delicious bolognese sauce.

                                  First of all, depending on your amount of time - you could use a ground, flavoured seitan for the protein component. This will come inherent with flavour. But I admit I don't often have time to do that.

                                  When using TVP - use the unprocessed stuff that doesn't smell awful. like to rinse it first, then reconstitute it in boiling water with a tablespoon of soy sauce, and a tablespoon of tomato paste.

                                  A number of other things you do taste the same - though I recommend adding some toasted sesame oil (or dark sesame oil), and some soy sauce along to the sauce. Even some red wine boiled off at the beginning would be wonderful (I couldn't see where you added that to the sauce?).

                                  A non-dairy milk adds a great richness and sweetness if you have time to simmer the sauce for a couple of hours - a good, non-beany soy will taste good in the end.

                                  Definitely follow the advice re: the garlic - add some raw near the end, some garlic powder, and some near the beginning.

                                  I think your sauce looks great - but yes, brown any protein!