Some may balk at a vegan version of Bolognese because it bypasses the beef and milk that are integral to the Italian classic. But there is a particular thrill to capturing the spirit of a traditional ragù without the traditional ingredients. This recipe manages to achieve equally rich, robust flavor and comparable complexity and comfort. It is built like a Bolognese, but skips meat and dairy.
The foundation is the same: It builds flavor from soffritto — the Italian trinity of minced onion, carrot and celery sautéed in olive oil until the vegetables are caramelized and their sweetness exaggerated — and gathers acidity and sugar from tomatoes and vegan wine.
While standard Bolognese formulas rely upon meat to simmer and collapse to make the sauce silky and unctuous, this vegan version gains substance from minced caramelized mushrooms and toasted walnuts. Like mushrooms, walnuts, soy sauce and tomato paste — and, yes, beef — it has a high concentration of glutamic acid, which imparts a strong umami taste best described as meaty.
A swirl of olive oil lends flavor and that prized richness that lingers on your tongue the way dairy and animal fats do. The result tastes as lush, but also brighter, with a welcome boost of bitterness.
Vegan Bolognese with Walnuts and Mushrooms
• 1 cup shelled walnuts, chopped into pieces no larger than 1/4-inch
• Kosher salt and black pepper
• 1 pound fresh mushrooms (preferably half shiitake and half cremini)
• 1/2 cup olive oil, plus more for serving
• 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
• 2 teaspoons soy sauce
• 2 teaspoons thick, syrupy balsamic vinegar (optional)
• 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
• 1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped
• 2 celery stalks, peeled and finely chopped
• 4 garlic cloves, chopped
• 1 teaspoons dried oregano
• 3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
• 3 tablespoons tomato paste
• 2 teaspoons Marmite
• 1/2 cup dry vegan red wine
• 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
• Linguine, fettuccine or other long pasta, cooked until al dente
• Minced fresh parsley or sliced fresh basil, for serving (optional)
Add chopped nuts to a large pot and toast over medium, stirring frequently, until they visibly sweat and become fragrant, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, transfer to a medium bowl and set aside.
Stem the shiitake mushrooms (reserve the stems for another use), if using, then wipe the caps clean using damp paper towels, and chop into 1/4-inch pieces.
Wipe out the pot, then heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high. Add half the mushrooms and 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, season with salt and pepper, and cook until browned, about 6 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with toasted walnuts, then repeat with the remaining mushrooms and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds. Stir the soy sauce into the mushroom mixture, then the balsamic (if using). Set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium. Add the onion, carrot and celery, season with salt and pepper, and cook until starting to caramelize, about 7 minutes. Stir in the mushroom-walnut mixture, garlic, oregano and red pepper flakes; stir 1-2 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and Mar-mite, and cook until caramelized, 4-5 minutes.
Pour in wine, stirring occasionally until alcohol cooks off and the liquid reduces until thick and sticky, 3-4 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes, along with 1 cup water. Bring to a simmer over high.
Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes are cooked through, 30-40 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons olive oil; season with salt and pepper.
Cook the pasta according to package instructions until al dente. Drain, reserving 1 1/2 cups pasta water. Toss cooked pasta with the desired amount of sauce, adding pasta water as needed so sauce is glossy. Divide cooked pasta among bowls; top with more sauce. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with parsley or basil, if using. Serve immediately.
Total time: 1 3/4 hours, makes about 6 cups.
You might be tempted to pulse the nuts in a food processor, but it’s easy to accidentally pulverize them. Small pieces will burn by the time all the nuts are properly toasted, so chopping by hand is preferred.