This bolognese is an absolute staple in my house. If it’s a day when I’m lacking imagination or there’s not much in the cupboards then I can normally scrape together enough vegetables from the bottom of the fridge and find some dried lentils somewhere in the cupboard. I often make extra as it freezes really well, and can be used for loads of other recipes; as a rich lasagne filling or with mash slathered over the top for a hearty shepherds pie. You could even add more vegetable stock to make a warming lentil soup. However possibly most of all I love it splodged over mountains of spaghetti and eaten without a care for how much gets on your face/clothes/on the table/in your hair etc..
I think lentils still have a bit of a bad rep for some, conjuring imagines of bland and stodgy 1970’s vegetarian offerings. This is deeply unfair given the extensive varieties of lentil, the myriad of ways in which they can be used (see any Indian cooking for examples), and the sumptuous flavours and textures you can produce depending on what lentils you use and how you cook them.
There are plenty of lentils that are pretty easy to get hold of and would work well in this recipe, but my favourites are puy lentils (also known as lentilles vertes or french green lentils). These are small dark green mottled lentils that have a lovely peppery flavour, and hold their shape well during cooking so don’t tend to have that slightly mushy texture. They are relatively quick to cook from dry and don’t require soaking beforehand. You can get them in most supermarkets, though Puy lentils tend to be more expensive as ‘Puy’ is a protected term in the EU, but lentilles vertes or french green lentils are just as good and often much cheaper.
Other lentils that would work include brown lentils, which you are most likely to find in the world food isle or in Indian supermarkets. These are slightly larger than puy so take a little longer to cook, but generally don’t require soaking beforehand and retain their shape relatively well. Green lentils are probably the most common dried lentil and you can also usually find them in tins in most supermarkets; I’ll provide instructions for using tinned lentils as well as dry in the recipe below.
The key is not to rush – you want to cook the onions and vegetables until they are soft, sweet, and starting a caramelize, and the sauce for long enough that it becomes thick and unctuous.
The basic elements of this dish a pretty straight forward: onions, celery, carrots, garlic, lentils, tinned tomatoes and vegetable stock. However even here there’s no harm in swapping in or adding a few different vegetables e.g. a couple of leeks would do instead of onions, and if you have courgettes, aubergines or mushrooms that need using up then give then chop them reasonably finely and add them after the carrots (or instead of!). You might be able to see from the photos that I bunged in half a red pepper that was lurking at the back of the fridge – it’s a great way of using up miscellaneous veg.
To really boost the flavour I’ve included sun-dried tomatoes and red wine, both of which add depth and richness to the sauce but neither is strictly essential. If you have dried sun-dried tomatoes just soak them in just-boiled water for 5-10 minutes before chopping them, or you can use them straight from the jar. If you have sun-dried tomato paste then a couple of generous tablespoons of that instead would be delicious. The red wine can be as cheap and cheerful as you like, and you’ll cook off the alcohol, but if you chose to omit then replace with the equivalent volume of stock, and add a tablespoon of red wine vinegar, or an extra tablespoon of balsamic vinegar. However, the major advantage of using red wine is that you’re left with most of a bottle of wine and they do say that it tastes best on the day of opening…
Of course, if you are gluten or grain free then regular spaghetti won’t be an option for you, however there are now some great alternatives available in most supermarkets. You can just replace the weight of spaghetti I’ve suggested with brown rice, red lentil or green pea pasta (or any other sort you come across). You will still end up with a rich and hearty meal, bursting with flavour and packed full of comfort. If you make it, please let me know how you get on in the comments below, or on Twitter or Instagram @clarecooksvegan.
Vegan Lifesaver Lentil Bolognese
A rich, satisfying and sumptuous lentil bolognese
- 3 tbsp olive oil / sunflower oil / vegetable oil
- 1 large brown onion
- 2 sticks celery
- 1 large carrot (about 150g)
- 4 fat garlic cloves, crushed or grated
- 50g sun-dried tomatoes*
- 200ml red wine**
- 250g dried Puy lentils / lentilles vertes / brown lentils / green lentils***
- 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
- 5g vegetable stock (approx 1 stock cube or 1 tsp stock powder)
- 2 tsp dried herbs (I used 1tsp each of oregano and thyme)****
- 1 tsp salt
- 1-2 tsp balsamic vinegar (optional)
- black pepper
- 75-100g spaghetti per person (or gluten-free or grain-free pasta of choice)
- Put a large pan on a medium heat with 3 tbsp oil. Finely chop the large onion and add to the pan, stirring frequently.
- Finely chop 2 sticks celery and add these to the frying onions and turn the heat down slightly to medium-low. Finely chop the large carrot and add this to the pan (if you would like to add any other vegetables such as red peppers, aubergines, courgettes or mushrooms then finely chop and stir them in now).
- Fry the vegetables for at least 10 minutes until they are soft and sweet and starting to brown. At this point add the garlic and stir-fry for a minute, then add 50g of finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes (soaked for 5 minutes in boiled water if using dry) and cook for another 2 minutes.
- Pour in 200ml red wine and stir to bring up anything stuck to the bottom of the pan. Then add 250g lentils (see notes if using tinned) and 2 tins of tomatoes. In an empty tomato tin add the stock cube or 5g stock powder and half a tin of hot water. Stir until the stock is dissolved then add to the pan, along with another 1½ tins of hot or cold water, the 2 tsp of dried herbs and 1 tsp of salt and give a good stir.
- Bring to the boil, then reduce to a low heat and simmer until the lentils are cooked and the sauce is thick. The time will vary depending on the type of lentil you use. I would simmer for about 30-35 minutes for Puy lentils and about 45-50 for brown or green lentils, but you may need a little longer. While the lentils are simmering, be sure to stir them from time and add a little more water if the pan is starting to look dry or the mixture is sticking to the bottom. You can tell the lentils are cooked when you can crush one easily with the back of a fork, or when you taste them and they are soft with no hint of grittiness.
- While the lentils are simmering away, cook the pasta according to the packet instructions, in plenty of salted water – 75-100g per person is normally a good estimate.
- Season to taste with black pepper, add a little more salt if needed and 1-2 tsp balsamic vinegar. You don’t want the bolognese to taste vinegary but a small amount can really bring the other flavours alive. Start with 1 tsp, taste, and add the second if you think it still needs just a little extra something.
- Serve immediately with a sprinkle of parsley or vegan Parmesan.
Notes*Alternatively you can use a couple of tbsp of sun-dried tomato paste, or omit altogether
**Any red wine will do, but if you’d rather leave this out then you can replace with 200ml vegetable stock and a tbsp red wine vinegar, or balsamic vinegar
***If using tinned lentils then use 2 x 400g tins and don’t add until right at the end. Add the tinned tomatoes and ½ tin of stock to the vegetables, then only another half tin of water, and the herbs and salt. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes until the sauce has reduced a little and is lovely and thick, then add the tinned lentils and heat through for 5 minutes, before seasoning to taste and adding the balsamic vinegar
***You could also use dried basil or parsley, mixed herbs, or herbes de provence
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