Slow-simmered bolognese sauce ranks high among comfort dishes that make diners swoon. A well-prepared ragu of this kind takes most of the day to prepare, perfuming the whole house in the process, making it a true labor of love. The results are a deeply flavored sauce with an almost creamy texture, perfect for dressing pasta and luscious enough for impressing dinner guests. Lest you think I'm talking only of traditional meat-based bolognese, let me be clear: This is eggplant bolognese we're discussing here, and it is just as hearty, succulent, and comforting as its meaty counterpart. And the secret is in the preparation of the eggplant.
Building a Vegan Bolognese
This vegan rendition relies on a lot of the classic preparations for bolognese. There's an aromatic soffritto to soften, wine to reduce, and the pasta is even finished in the sauce. However, to capture the robust meaty flavor of bolognese, we're manipulating mushrooms and eggplant to add flavor and body to the sauce. Here's a look at the major components that bring this together.
Eggplant and Mushrooms for Umami and Texture
Before building the sauce, we're baking a whole unsliced eggplant in the oven until tender. This will take at least an hour, but you can chop and dice the rest of the vegetables while the eggplant is baking. The baked eggplant lends a velvety texture to the sauce, but more importantly, baking concentrates the eggplant's earthy flavor, which lends the necessary savory profile to the final sauce.
Mushrooms are a fairly standard meat replacement, as they have a naturally meaty flavor and chewy texture. This recipe calls for sautéing them separately from any of the other vegetables in a completely different pan. You might be tempted to throw them in with the other vegetables and skip washing a pan, but you should not do this — cooking the mushrooms on their own concentrates their flavor and also cooks off a great deal of their moisture, which prevents them from getting slimy and helps them absorb flavor from the sauce.
Soffritto for a Robust Base of Flavor
Soffritto (a close relative of the French mirepoix and Spanish sofrito) is a humble mixture of chopped onion, carrot, and celery. Softened in a bit of olive oil, soffritto becomes the fragrant base for almost all long-simmering sauces. This classic combination also brings both flavor and texture to the bolognese.
Red, Red Wine
There are a few sources that argue white wine as a more traditional addition to bolognese, but this vegan riff calls for two cups of red wine and here's why: Red wine has a body and tannins that will add considerably more meaty flavor to the sauce than white. Use an inexpensive Italian red blend here — a Chianti is nice, but anything dry and not sweet will work.
Go for a Tubular Pasta
Spaghetti is such an iconic pasta for bolognese, and you can certainly use it here, but using a short, tubular pasta like rigatoni or penne is highly recommended. The tube shape picks up more of the sauce and makes eating this dish even more pleasurable.
How To Make Vegan Eggplant Bolognese
What You Need
1 medium eggplant (about 1 pound)
1 pound cremini mushrooms (about 2 pints), stems removed and sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
2 cups dry red wine (such as Chianti)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil leaves
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh oregano leaves
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
8 ounces dry rigatoni or penne pasta
For garnish: Fresh herbs, nutritional yeast, or Parmesan cheese
Measuring cups and spoons
Large Dutch oven
Spatula or wooden spoon
Large frying pan
Large pasta pot
Bake the whole eggplant: Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 350°F. Place the eggplant directly on the oven rack and bake until very tender, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Cool the eggplant while preparing the rest of the sauce.
- Brown the mushrooms: Meanwhile, heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat until hot. Add the mushrooms and brown, stirring occasionally, until they’ve shrunk by about half, 8 to 10 minutes. Set the pan aside.
- Make the soffritto: Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion, celery, and carrots, and season with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are softened, 10 to 12 minutes.
- Add the wine: Pour the wine onto the soffrito mixture and stir to combine. Reduce the wine by half, stirring occasionally, 5 to 7 minutes.
- Add the aromatics and tomato paste: Add the garlic, basil, oregano, thyme, and tomato paste and cook until thickened and fragrant, about 5 minutes.
- Add the eggplant and tomatoes: Peel and coarsely chop the cooled eggplant. Add the eggplant, reserved mushrooms, crushed tomatoes, and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt to the soffritto mixture and stir until thoroughly combined.
- Simmer: Reduce the heat to low and cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching, until the sauce is quite thick, at least 1 hour.
- Cook the pasta: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium heat. Add the pasta and cook to al dente.
- Finish the pasta in the sauce: Use a slotted spoon to transfer the pasta from the cooking water to the sauce. Don’t worry about any pasta-cooking water that might fall into the sauce as well — this will help season and thin the sauce. Cook the pasta for an additional 2 minutes in the sauce.
- Garnish with herbs: Serve with additional fresh chopped herbs and nutritional yeast or Parmesan cheese, as desired.
- Make-ahead: The sauce can be made ahead and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days or in the freezer for up to 6 months.
- Storage: Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.