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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.