Veganised recipes can feel like a cop-out; this one works because it's anything but. Like traditional ragú, you spend a lot of time sweating vegetables and browning the base to build flavour; unlike traditional ragú, this one gets its body from several kilos of minced mushrooms and roasted eggplant.
All photos by A.A. Newton
There are a few other differences — no celery, which I don't like in meatless red sauce and beer instead of wine for extra body — but really, you're using traditional techniques to make a hearty ragú that happens to be vegan. I don't miss the meat and I doubt anyone except truly dedicated mushroom and/or eggplant-haters will.
My recipe is adapted from one of J. Kenji López-Alt's, which makes a beautiful pot of sauce but is a bit fussy for my tastes. This one will still take a minimum of three hours start-to-finish, but it makes a bit less than 4L of sauce and is totally, completely worth the time.
- 1-1.5kg whole eggplant (two large or three medium)
- scant 1/2 cup of olive oil
- 1 large or two small yellow onions, finely diced
- 1 large or two small carrots, finely diced
- 1-1.5kg mushrooms, finely diced by hand or chopped in the food processor (I used a mixture of white button, portobello and shiitake mushrooms)
- 350mL crap beer (an equivalent volume of dry red or white wine works too)
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 1/2 teaspoon (or more) crushed chilli flakes
- 2 800g cans whole tomatoes
- 2 Tb soy sauce
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp. Balsamic vinegar
- Chopped fresh herbs, if you have some
Preheat oven to 200°C. Place eggplants on a sheet of alfoil large enough to loosely wrap around them, drizzle with olive oil and wrap 'em up. Put on a baking sheet and roast in the oven until eggplants are soft and collapsed — at least an hour.
Lower oven temperature to 170°C and let eggplants cool. When they're cool enough to touch, slice the eggplants lengthwise, scoop out the flesh and transfer to a bowl.
While the eggplant roasts, chop the veggies and set a wide, heavy-bottomed pan — like a French/Dutch oven or large, deep sauté pan — over medium-low heat.
Preheat the pan for a minute or two, then pour in enough olive oil to fully coat the bottom (I used nearly half a cup) and heat until shimmering. Add the onion and carrot to the pan, season with two big pinches of salt and cook for at least 20 minutes — stirring occasionally — until very soft and lightly browned.
Increase heat to medium and add all of the mushrooms to the pan. Cook, stirring frequently to scrape up browned bits, until all of the liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms are thoroughly browned. This is a long, crucial step: it will take at least 30-45 minutes to fully cook out the mushrooms' liquid (and if you chopped the mushrooms in the food processor, it will look pretty gross until that happens).
The longer you spend browning the mushrooms, the better it will taste, so stick with it.
Once the mushrooms are nicely browned, clear a spot in the center of the pan and pour in another tablespoon or two of olive oil. Add the sliced garlic directly into the oil and let it sizzle for a minute, then stir to combine with the mushrooms. Pour in the beer or wine, increase heat to medium-high, and simmer until all of the liquid has evaporated.
If I use the champagne of beers, did I technically use wine? Discuss amongst yourselves.
When the alcohol has boiled off, stir in the tomato paste and chilli flakes to the pan and cook for a minute or two. Add the eggplant and any accumulated juices, then pour in the tomatoes and their juice, crushing them slightly with the back of your spoon. Finally, stir in the soy sauce and bay leaves, then transfer pan to the 170°C oven. Roast, uncovered, for at least two hours and up to four, stirring once an hour.
Just before serving, stir in the balsamic vinegar and add more salt and/or soy sauce to taste. If you have some, chopped fresh herbs are a welcome addition.
Serve over pasta or polenta, garnished with a drizzle of olive oil, some crunchy salt and additional chopped herbs; if you're not vegan, feel free to add plenty of grated Parmesan. Since there's no other animal fat involved, cheese perfectly complements this sauce without making it overwhelmingly rich, which is why I strongly recommend it for lasagna.
This recipe is a staple in my house and has been for years; I might be biased, but I think it's pretty special. Regardless of your meat consumption habits, if you love red sauce, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. It might just convert you, too!