Bolognese is one of those staple dishes that almost everybody likes. It is a safe option to make when you invite friends for a dinner, and is also super practical to make in a bigger batch and store for later.
It can be made completely plant-based and 100% delicious, even without the classic meat substitutes. In this post I will share a recipe for a bolognese sauce made with sprouted brown lentils.
Making a super tasty vegan version of bolognese sauce is more than possible – trust me, you don’t need to be following a certain diet to fall in love with this dish. Many of my non-vegan friends wanted me to cook it over and over again after trying it and saying that it tasted almost like the real thing.
There are many foodstuffs that can be used instead of meat in a bolognese sauce. The most common ingredient would probably be soy protein flakes, because they really resemble meat in texture; another great option is crumbled tofu (that one might even be one of my favourites).
But today I want to share with you the most natural and wholesome option, without meat substitutes, that will give you a truly nutritious meal without compromising the taste.
The key ingredient? Lentils.
Lentils are naturally packed with protein and certain micronutrients (such as potassium and folate), but also rich in fiber and low in fat. They are quite mild in taste, which makes them a good base for a sauce that will have other predominant flavours.
The best varieties of lentils to use in this recipe are brown and green ones. This time I chose the brown ones because they are slightly smaller and I love how their texture fits in the bolognese sauce. But if you decide upon the green ones, you won’t go wrong either.
I always like to sprout the pulses before using them in cooking; sprouting makes them better for digestion and shortens the time required to cook them. However, if you don’t have enough time to grow sprouts, soaking the lentils overnight will be good enough to prepare them for cooking.
Besides that, there is not that much wisdom about this dish – the whole process is really simple and doesn’t require any special or fancy ingredients. All the ingredients besides the lentils are more or less what you would be putting in a regular bolognese sauce.
A couple of final tips
To enhance the flavour a bit, I like to add some soy sauce and nutritional yeast. A tablespoon of coconut sugar (or other sweetener such as agave or raw sugar) is added to reduce the acidity of tomatoes and balance out the flavours.
Speaking of tomatoes, I like to use them fresh whenever they are in season. When they are not, I use a home-made tomato salsa. Heirloom varieties are my first choice because they will give your dish the most flavour.
If you cannot get heirloom sorts, it is a good thing to go for a mix of “regular” and cherry tomatoes to bring some sweetness to the dish and avoid the taste being a bit too watered-down.
One thing to keep in mind when cooking with fresh tomatoes is that the cooking time will be a bit longer to get the same thickness as you would with cooked purée. That is not a problem in this recipe, because it is almost impossible to overcook the ingredients (maybe you know how much of an everything-is-better-raw advocate I am, but this is a sauce that we are talking about here).
My favourite way to enjoy the plant-based bolognese sauce it with these home-made spelt flour noodles, sprinkled with some home-made cashew parmesan (I will write a recipe for that in the near future, I hope!). A nutritious combination that is also a real comfort food bursting with flavour and home-made goodness.
- 1 cup dried brown lentils
- 2 large carrots (1 cup minced)
- 1 large onion (⅔ cup minced)
- 2 cups tomato purée
- 3 pinches salt
- 2 pinches pepper
- 5 tbsp shoyu or tamari
- 2 tbsp nutritional yeast
- 1 tbsp coconut sugar
- 2-3 bay leaves
- 1 pinch dried thyme or a branch of fresh one
- 2 tbsp non-refined olive oil
- 2 cups tomato purée or pulp (or 3 cups puréed fresh tomatoes)
- 1 cup water (or as needed)
1. Prepare the sprouted lentils as shown in this article. Alternatively, you can just soak the lentils overnight.
2. Mince the carrots and onions as finely as possible.
3. Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil on a pan, and add the minced vegetables. Season them with salt and pepper and sauté over a low heat until the onions turn translucent.
4. Add the lentils, shoyu and all the rest of the spices.
5. Pour the tomato purée, add bay leaves, nutritional yeast and coconut sugar, and give it a good stir.
6. Cook the sauce for about 20 minutes, or until the lentils get soft and well cooked. If the sauce gets too thick, add some water as needed.
7. Give it a final taste before you turn the heat off, to see if it needs some more salt or shoyu.
8. Remove the sauce from the heat and serve with noodles (I recommend a delicious combination with these home-made spelt flour noodles).
9. After it cools down, the sauce can be stored in a container and kept in a fridge for up to a week. You can also freeze it if you would like to keep it for some other occasion.
* Sprouting the lentils is not absolutely necessary to make a good bolognese sauce, but it will definitely make them easier to digest. If you don't have time to let them sprout, you can at least soak them in water for 8-12 hours. This will already make them softer and shorten the time required to cook the meal.
* When the tomatoes are not in season, I use home-made cooked tomato salsa from last summer. You can used canned tomato pulp as well, but keep in mind that the better quality tomato sauce, the tastier your dish will be in the end. That is why I like to use home-grown heirloom tomato sauce whenever I can (lucky enough to be living in sunny old Croatia).
* If you decide to use fresh tomatoes (I always like to use them fresh when they are in season), you can use one more cup of puréed or minced fresh tomatoes instead of one cup of water that is written in the recipe. That will be three cups of tomato altogether, instead of two.
* When using fresh tomatoes, you might need to cook the sauce a bit longer to get the desired thickness. The rest of the ingredients will not get overcooked, so you don't have to worry if you'll need to adjust the cooking time a bit.