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Eric Akis: Mushrooms make meat-free magic in vegetarian bolognese

If you’ve grown or bought a bushel of lovely ripe tomatoes, turning some into sauce for pasta or other uses is a flavourful way to use some of them. I did that recently and started by making roasted tomato sauce.
Hearty, flavourful, meat-free bolognese sauce is served over pasta. ERIC AKIS

If you’ve grown or bought a bushel of lovely ripe tomatoes, turning some into sauce for pasta or other uses is a flavourful way to use some of them.

I did that recently and started by making roasted tomato sauce. The first step was to plunge ripe red tomatoes into boiling water a short while, until their skins loosen. The tomatoes are taken out of the water and the skins are removed. The tomatoes are then halved, seeded, set on a baking sheet, drizzled and sprinkled with olive oil and salt, and roasted in a low oven two hours, concentrating their already fine flavour. The final step in making the sauce is to puree the roasted tomatoes with any juices leftover from the seeding process.

The roasted tomato sauce can be used in any recipe calling for tomato sauce. I used some of it to make a vegetarian version of bolognese sauce. To make it vegetarian, I replaced the ground meat traditional used in the sauce with meaty tasting, final chopped portobello and shiitake mushrooms.

The mushrooms were cooked in olive oil with a mix of finely chopped vegetables, and then simmered in roasted tomato sauce with flavourings, such as herbs, spices and white wine. The end result is a rich tasting, aromatic sauce that has the look and taste of bolognese, without the meat. You can ladle the sauce over your favourite type of pasta, or use it in lasagna or even on a pizza.

Tomatoes good for making sauce include varieties such as oxheart, ultra sweet, beefsteak and/or roma tomatoes. I used oxheart, a large, pear-shaped, fleshy tomato with few seeds.

You are more likely to find oxheart and ultra sweet tomatoes (a beefsteak-type) at farm markets and smaller food stores specializing in local produce. Roma and more commercial grown varieties of beefsteak tomatoes are more widely available and can also be found at supermarkets. No matter what tomatoes you use, make sure they are ripe and feel heavy for the size, signs they are juicy and perfect for making sauce.

The roasted tomato sauce recipe yields about two litres, the bolognese sauce, about one and two third litres. If that’s too much for you, both sauces could be frozen for another time. Both recipes could also be halved if you prefer to make a smaller amount.

Vegetarian Bolognese-style Sauce

In this full-of-flavour vegetarian version of bolognese sauce, meaty-tasting, finely chopped mushrooms replace the ground meat normally used.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: about 35 minutes

Makes: About seven (one cup) servings of sauce

2 large (each about 150 gram) portobello mushrooms, caps and stems coarsely chopped

18 medium to large (about 225 grams) shiitake mushrooms, tough stem removed, caps sliced

1/4 cup olive oil

3/4 cup finely diced onion

3/4 cup finely diced celery

3/4 cup finely diced carrot

3 Tbsp tomato paste

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1 tsp dried basil

1 tsp dried oregano

1/4 tsp fennel seed, coarsely crushed, or to taste (see Note)

• a few pinches red pepper flakes

• a few pinches granulated sugar

6 cups roasted tomato sauce (see recipe below and Eric’s options)

1/2 cup vegetable stock or water

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 bay leaf

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place the mushrooms, in batches if needed, in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.

Pour the oil into a medium to large pot (mine was eight inches wide and six inches tall) set over medium heat. When oil is hot, add the chopped mushrooms, onion, celery and carrot. Cook and stir until the vegetables are tender and the moisture has evaporated from the mushrooms, about six to seven minutes.

Add the tomato paste, garlic, basil, oregano, red pepper flakes, sugar and fennel seed to the pot. Cook and stir one minute more. Now add the tomato sauce, stock, wine, bay leaf, salt and pepper and bring to a gentle simmer. Gently simmer sauce, partially covered (don’t completely cover; steam needs to escape) for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until thickened and rich in colour.

Taste the sauce and season with more salt and pepper, if needed, and a touch more sugar, if you find it too acidic. The sauce is now ready to use.

Note: You can lightly crush the fennel seeds in a spice or coffee grinder. Or, you could simple set them on a cutting board and press on them with the bottom of a heavy skillet and crush them that way.

Eric’s options: Instead of dried oregano and basil, use fresh versions of both herbs, to taste. If you do, add those fresh herbs to the sauce near the end of cooking. If you don’t want to make roasted tomato sauce, replace it with an equal amount of passata di pomodoro, also called strained tomatoes. It’s sold in tall jars at most grocery stores.

Roasted Tomato Sauce

Roasting ripe, local, peeled, halved and seeded tomatoes intensifies their fine flavour even more. Use this sauce in any recipe calling for tomato sauce.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: About two hours

Makes: about nine cups (two litres)

6 lbs. ripe red tomatoes, such as oxheart, ultra sweet, beefsteak and/or roma tomatoes

1/4 cup olive oil

• sea salt

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cut the stem end out of each tomato; mark a shallow X at the top of the blossom end. Plunge the tomatoes, a few at a time, into the boiling water for about 60 seconds, or until the skins start to loosen. Use a slotted spoon to lift the tomatoes out of the water and on to a work surface and let cool a few minutes. Now pull the skins of the tomatoes. Save the skins.

Preheat the oven to 225 F. Line two sided baking sheets with parchment paper. Set a fine sieve over a medium to large bowl.

Cut each tomato in half and squeeze or pull out the seeds into the sieve. Squeeze any juice out of the tomato skins into the sieve too. Use a whisk to push out as much liquid as you can from the tomato seed mixture. Discard the seeds. Refrigerate the tomato liquid.

Set the seeded tomato halves, cut side up, in a single layer on the baking sheets. Drizzle the tomatoes with the oil; sprinkle with sea salt. Roast the tomatoes, uncovered, for two hours.

Put the roasted tomatoes and all their juices in the bowl with the reserved strained tomato liquid. Purée the tomatoes with an immersion (hand) blender. The puréeing of the tomatoes could also be done in a food processor or blender.

The sauce is now ready to use, or be cooled and refrigerated until needed. It can also be frozen and saved for another time.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.