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Monday, April 19, 2010

Vegan Bolognese


From the amount of vegan recipes I post here, a person might assume I'm a vegan. I'm actually neither a vegan or a vegetarian. A while back, I thought about the amount of meat both Keith and I were consuming on a daily basis. Without making any conscious effort to do so, I realized we were both eating meat at LEAST once a day, and sometimes even with every meal. I'm pretty sure we take the availability and inexpensiveness of meat in this country for granted to be able to eat so much of it without even realizing it. We both decided to cut back our meat intake to one day a week. It's not super strict, and nobody is getting yelled at for ordering a steak if we happen to go out to dinner even if we already had meat that week. We both ended up feeling a lot healthier, and strangely enough, I find myself not even desiring meat the same way I used to. If you combine the effort to cut out some of the meat in my diet with the lactose intolerance, a lot of the things I make end up being vegan kind of by coincidence.

The next challenge was re-adjusting my weeknight cooking repertoire to include meatless dishes. The transition actually went pretty smoothly since it's always exciting to try out new recipes, but after a while I began wondering if there was any way to re-introduce some of my old favorites without the meat.

After a ton of tweaking and many different versions, I was able to adjust my favorite bolognese recipe into something that tastes almost identical to the meaty version. There were a few serious challenges, especially since I was convinced that the flavor added to a real, delicious, bolognese by frying your veggies with pancetta was irreplaceable. Pancetta is a cured pork product, kind of similar in flavor to bacon, so in some early incarnations of this recipe I tried adding bacon bits (did you know there isn't actually any meat in bacon bits?) to replace the flavor. It kind of worked, but really, who wants to eat a sauce made with bacon bits? I felt like it kind of cheapened the whole dish, and I would never serve it to friends.

Then came the discovery of a magical spice called "bacon salt." It's simply a spice mix, nothing scary or weird here (except for MSG,) but somehow it really tastes like bacon without actually containing bacon (not to mention it's kosher... a kosher bacon flavoring? Who knew.) Be careful though if you're really going for a vegan version, because the "original" and "natural" blends contain dairy, but you're pretty much good to go with any of the other blends. The resulting sauce after using this bacon salt was so insanely close to real bolognese that both Keith and I could hardly tell the difference. I found the stuff at my local super market, so I can't imagine it's too difficult to find.

One last explanation and then I promise I'll get to the recipe. A glaringly obvious omission in this meat sauce is the actual meat itself. A few years ago I was at a party enjoying a homemade bowl of deliciously meaty chili when the woman who made the chili informed me that there was actually no meat in it at all. I was more than a little confused since what I was eating tasted, looked, and felt like ground beef. I later learned that this ground beef substitute was called smart ground, and it's also available at my local super market in the produce section. I was seriously skeptical of this stuff at first, but after trying to use it myself I was totally hooked. It's made from a combination of soy, wheat gluten, and spices, and it replaces ground-beef well enough in most recipes that it can fool the most avid meat-lover.

Fauxlognese (adapted from Spaghetti alla Bolognese at "What's for Lunch, Honey?")

One package of smart ground "beef"
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 or 3 carrots, diced
1 leek, chopped and washed thoroughly
2 yellow onions, chopped
2 tsp dried thyme or about 1 1/2 tbsp fresh chopped thyme
2 tsp dried oregano or about 1 1/2 tsp fresh chopped oregano
2 tbsp or more chopped fresh basil (you really can't substitute anything for fresh basil, it just doesn't work)
1 28oz can of diced tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato paste
1/2 - 3/4 cup vegetable stock or white wine or a combination of the two (I usually do a combination because I have both and want to get rid of them)
olive oil
bacon salt
salt & pepper
a bay leaf

Heat a layer of olive oil in a large pot over medium heat and add garlic, onions, carrots and leeks. Add about 1 tsp of bacon salt to the veggies and cook, stirring, until soft.

Add a little extra olive oil to the pot and then add in the smart ground, breaking it into crumbles with your spoon. Smart ground starts out extremely dry, so if it begins to stick to your pot, add more olive oil. Once the smart ground is heated, add in the tomato paste and stir until combined. Pour in the liquid, tomatoes, thyme, oregano, and a bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper to taste (and more bacon salt if you feel it's lacking.)

Let the sauce simmer over low heat for 30 minutes or longer, until it has become thick and rich. Fish out the bay leaf and stir in the basil once you turn off the heat. Serve over pasta.

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