A Humble but Mighty Lentil Bolognese

March 19, 2015

Every other Thursday, Gena Hamshaw of the blog Choosing Raw shares satisfying, flavorful recipes that also happen to be vegan.

Today: Gena's vegan lentil bolognese has all the heartiness of the traditionally meat-based dish -- and it even comes with a quick recipe for cashew Parmesan.

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Within the pasta kingdom, few dishes deserve the title of “comfort food” more than pasta bolognese. The hearty, slow-simmering sauce transforms a bowl of noodles into a complete meal instantly, without any fuss or multiple pots. Of course, bolognese sauce is traditionally made with beef, veal, or pork, which is part of what accounts for its heartiness. To create a vegan/vegetarian version of this dish -- or a Meatless Monday edition -- one need look no further than the humble lentil.

Lentils are one of my favorite plant-based proteins. They’re cheap, they’re filling, they’re ridiculously healthy, and best of all, they’re versatile. They can be easily substituted for meat in all kinds of recipes, from soups and stews to Sloppy Joes.

More: The lentil love continues.

This recipe features traditional bolognese ingredients -- celery, carrots, olive oil, tomatoes -- but it uses lentils as the base. It’s the sort of meal you can pull together from your pantry at the last moment, which makes it perfect for spur-of-the-moment entertaining or a weeknight supper. As you’ll see, the sauce is bold and flavorful (another bragging point for lentils: they absorb flavor really well). I like to serve it with penne or rigatoni, but I also like to serve the leftovers, warmed, over a bowl of brown rice or quinoa. The recipe will make enough for leftovers, and if you like, you can freeze half and save it for a cool, rainy night.

Vegan Lentil Bolognese

Serves 6

For the bolognese:

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup yellow or white onion, chopped
1 large rib celery, chopped
2 medium-sized carrots, chopped
1 cup button mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup brown or green lentils, rinsed
One 28-ounce can diced or crushed tomatoes
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine
3/4 cup water
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons oregano, or 1 teaspoon dried oregano
Dash red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/3 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
12 ounces penne or rigatoni pasta (or linguine, if you prefer)

For the cashew Parmesan:

1 cup raw cashews
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon olive oil

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • seaphotog
  • beachpoet
  • Soleil
  • Gigi Michele Loughner
    Gigi Michele Loughner
  • Andreas Düss
    Andreas Düss
Gena is a registered dietitian, recipe developer, and food blogger. She's the author of three cookbooks, including Power Plates (2017) and Food52 Vegan (2015). She enjoys cooking vegetables, making bread, and challenging herself with vegan baking projects.


seaphotog March 22, 2015
Chopped and simmered while I watched hoops and while I like a traditional meat-based Bolognese, this was great because I had most everything in my cupboard. I did find that I was lacking tomato paste (gasp), but reached for some sun-dried tomato pesto for the umami and it was fine I think. Only issue was I should have used the full 16 oz of my bag of pasta - the ratio would be better pasta:sauce. And I think I had older lentils so this cooking time didn't quite soften them, but still -- delicious.
beachpoet March 22, 2015
I have to say I agree with Andreas (but I don't feel grumpy about it.) This recipe is basically the same old lentil stew I make all the time served over pasta. I love it, but it has nothing to do with Bologna. If anything, it's more Greek than Italian. Maybe call it Lentil Ragu? Parmesan (Parmagiana-Reggiano) is cheese, not nuts. I am an excellent vegan cook, although I am not a vegan. I find it curious that vegans have opted out of an animal based diet, but still want to name dishes after their animal based counterparts. Why would that be?
Soleil March 22, 2015
That is a very nice recipe.
Gigi M. March 20, 2015
As a vegan, I appreciate when a dish is named as a vegan version of a dish that I knew and loved before I quit eating meat. I didn't stop eating meat because I didn't like it. I stopped because I couldn't support the horrific cruelty that goes hand in hand with eating meat. So, as vegans we come up with approximations of old favorite dishes and we name them thusly to communicate the intent. I don't expect them to taste exactly like the original meat version but then it's been so long since I've had meat I wouldn't know what it tastes like anyway. I'm sorry if you're Italian Andreas and this harmed your sensibilities. No harm intended. I'm Italian and couldn't care less.
Gena H. March 20, 2015
I couldn't agree more about the value of using familiar names, Gigi -- the intention is to communicate the flavors and textures that the dish is evoking.
Andreas D. March 19, 2015
I am going to be a grumpy old man about this. Let me start by saying that I love good food, be it vegan, vegetarian, fish or meat based. I am a committed omnivore, I eat anything from veggies to insects.

All this to say that I have no issue with vegan cuisine at all. But one one thing that really, really bothers me about some vegan recipes, such as this one, is how they disrespect the recipe they are trying to emulate.

Let me say this very clearly: this is not a sauce bolognese. What you have here is lentils in tomato sauce, delicious no doubt, but an entirely different beast altogether.

A bolognese is a traditional Italian dish. It is, ideally, simmered all day. It contains at its heart meat. Boar perhaps, some finely diced smoked bacon, ground shoulder from a tough old cow or even some veal for festive occasions. Red wine, or white wine, depending on the region. The milk vs no milk debate has been going on for centuries.

What a bolognese doesn't contain is lentils. Never has, never will. Taking the name and using it for your own purposes shows a total lack of respect, and a lack of knowledge, for a recipe that goes back centuries, if not millennia.

The same by the way is true for calling a nut butter Parmesan. It takes skill, real skill, to make a good Parmesan skill. Soaking a bunch of nuts doesn't even come close to that skill, also offers none of the taste experience that a good real Parmesan delivers.

As I've said, I love good vegan food. Tuscan chickpea soup with tomatoes and roasted garlic is a winter standby in our house. What I cannot stand is the appropriation of honest recipes, taking their names and identity and plonking them on a weak imitation. It's poor taste. It's annoying. And it does nothing to further the vegan cause.

Thus endeth the gospel of Saint Grump.
Angelica March 20, 2015
Yes, an old Saint Grump you are
heatheranne March 20, 2015
I'm not vegan, but I do cut down on the meat that I eat and have no problem eating vegetarian/vegan meals. But I have to agree - when I try vegetarian/vegan versions of what I would consider "classic" meat dishes (like bolognese, shepherd's pie, cabbage rolls), I'm always disappointed as it doesn't have that same taste (that you undoubtedly get from the animal fat!). If I want a vegan pasta dish with a little protein, I'd rather have a good marinara over lentil noodles than try and imitate a bolognese with lentils. If it works for those who don't eat meat at all, great, but doesn't really work for me.
Sarah J. March 20, 2015
I'm of the opinion that this is less an "imitation" of bolognese than a dish that's influenced by the flavors and spirit of bolognese -- it's not appropriation but inspiration. That's why it's called Lentil Bolognese and not simply Vegan Bolognese. It's not a substitute, not another option! (And it's really good!)
Andreas D. March 20, 2015
See, if the writing would have reflected that, it's an inspiration, then I would have kept my inner old man firmly locked up. But it doesn't. It talks about a vegan version of a dish that cannot, ever, be made vegan.

As I've said above, I love all food, and eat little meat myself, for both ethical and environmental reasons. There are many, many wonderful vegetarian and vegan recipes out there, so many that misappropriations, which is what is happening here, are really not needed.

A roasted portobello mushroom isn't a steak, will never be a steak, should not try to be a steak even though the favour profile has some similarities. Good vegan food can stand, and should stand, on its own without turning into a mediocre copy of a dish that is a close to the perfect meat stew as we can get.
Parmesan cheese, when we'll made, is a wonderful cheese. Creating it demands craft, knowledge, training and a deep sense of belonging. Soaking nuts and calling the result Parmesan is a slap in the face for those who spent a lifetime perfecting their craft.

I am all for democracy in food. I dislike fussiness. But let's be honest when it comes to the things that nourish us.
Marian B. March 19, 2015
omg i need this
Arthur I. March 19, 2015