Necessity is the mother of invention.
For the past couple of months, I’ve been a staunch vegetarian. I’ve never really eaten much meat, so I naively thought that switching from eating a little meat to eating zero meat would be a cinch.
Well…I was wrong. (And I don’t admit that often. Just ask my boyfriend.)
I miss being able to order pork belly at a restaurant, or having bangers with my eggs on Sunday mornings. My go-to take-out dinner was a salad with grilled chicken from a nearby Italian spot, but without the chicken it’s really just a bowl of leaves. I love my vegetables, but c’mon. I’m not a squirrel.
Still, I’m determined to follow through with my decision to eventually become vegan. Even if the smell of bacon wafting out of a nearby diner nearly brings me to tears. Every. Time.
Pasta is the ultimate comfort food in my book, and when I went to Italy last summer, I fell in love with it all over again. The best dish I had over there, and possibly the best pasta dish I’ve ever had, was the tagliatelle al ragù from Al Capello Rosso (read about it here). In other words, the most authentic spaghetti bolognese there is.
I was having massive cravings for that bolognese a few weeks ago, so much so that I almost broke my resolve and went out to get a cheap version of it to fill the void in my heart. I needed the comfort that only a rich ragù could satisfy. Luckily, I peeked into my fridge first, in case there was anything that caught my hungry eyes. Then I started to think about how to put together what I had into a sauce so that I could still receive the comfort of a hearty bowl of pasta without going against my newfound values.
My powerful craving was met with a delicious invention, if I do say so myself.
This vegetable version of ragù, or bolognese, is not the next best thing if you can’t eat meat – it is equally good. A small bowl of it is just as satisfying as a beef bolognese, and light years better than a bowl of leaves. And I’m not just making this up: even the pickiest and most carnivorous of my taste testers cleaned their plates completely. What’s even better is that it’s also completely vegan and gluten free, if served over gluten free pasta. This one is for everyone.
And that’s because these ingredients were made for each other. The lentils add heft and texture, and the sweet potato and honey provide just the right amount of sweetness to balance out the acidity of the tomato sauce. If you eat this, you will be satisfied. I guarantee it.
(Oh, and I had to make my own tagliatelle here too, because I tend to go a little overboard when there’s no one around to prevent me from displaying the true extent of my neuroticism. If you’re so inclined, check out my recipe and tips for homemade semolina pasta here.)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large yellow onions, diced
2 cloves of garlic
3 celery ribs, finely diced
3 carrots, finely diced
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
1 green bell pepper, finely diced
1 large sweet potato, finely diced
1 cup red wine
12 ounces tomato paste
5 1/2 cups water
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons oregano
1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup red lentils
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons honey (or other sugar)
1 cup of starchy water reserved from boiling pasta
Salt and pepper
1 lb tagliatelle
In a large, deep pot, heat the olive oil then add the onions. Cook on medium high heat until they just start to brown, then add the garlic. When the garlic starts to brown, add the celery and carrots, and season everything with salt and pepper. After the celery has had a chance to become translucent and the carrot is somewhat soft, which should take about five minutes, add the bell peppers and sweet potato and season again with salt and pepper. Continue cooking for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the potato is slightly browned.
Add the wine, tomato paste, water, bay leaf, oregano, parsley, cayenne pepper and more salt and pepper. Stir until the tomato paste is dissolved. Lower the heat to medium low and add the lentils, then cook for about an hour uncovered, or until the lentils are cooked. Stir and scrape the bottom occasionally.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pot of heavily salted water. When the pasta is nearly done, reserve a cup of its water and set aside for later. Strain the pasta when it is al dente, toss with olive oil to keep it from sticking, and set aside.
When the lentils are cooked, the sauce should have reduced and you should be left with a thick chili-like consistency. Add the balsamic vinegar and honey, and more salt and pepper to taste. When ready to serve, keep the sauce on low heat and add the cup of pasta water, stirring to combine. Remove the bay leaf, then serve warm over pasta, or mix it all together. Either way, buon appetito!