If you want a hearty, almost meaty-tasting sauce for pasta that contains no meat, dried green lentils are a good substitute. I know, because instead of ground beef, in today’s recipe I simmered green lentils into a ragu-style sauce that was filling, rich and tomatoey.
An added benefit was that lentils, like meat, are a source of protein. They also provide folic acid, fibre, potassium and iron.
I made the sauce the same way I would a meat-based one, but instead of slowly simmering cooked, crumbled meat in it, I cooked dried lentils in the sauce until they were tender, creating a thick and flavourful ragu.
You can serve the lentil ragu over any type of pasta. It could also be spooned over risotto or soft polenta, or even a baked, split-open yam or sweet potato.
I can’t resist serving some type of bread with saucy pasta — something I can use to mop up anything left in the bowl. So I have included my recipe for tender, tasty and comforting asiago cheese rolls. If that’s too much for you, just serve the lentil-ragu-topped pasta with a simple green salad.
Lentil Ragu on Pasta
Meat-free, vegetable-rich, tomatoey sauce served over pasta. Any leftover sauce will freeze well. I’ll let you decide how much pasta to cook depending on the size of your appetite.
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 55 minutes
Makes: Four to six servings
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/3 cup finely chopped celery
1/3 cup finely chopped green bell pepper
1/3 cup finely chopped carrot
2 large garlic cloves, minced
3/4 tsp dried basil
3/4 tsp dried oregano
• pinch or two red pepper flakes
• pinch granulated sugar
• pinch or two fennel seeds (optional)
1 cup dried green lentils
3 Tbsp tomato paste
1/2 cup red or white wine
(see Eric’s options)
3 1/4 cups vegetable stock or broth, plus more as needed
1 (14 oz./398 mL) can crushed tomatoes
1 bay leaf
• salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
• hot cooked pasta, such as linguini, spaghetti, rigatoni or penne, to taste
• freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to taste (optional)
• extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling (optional)
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
Place the 2 Tbsp oil in a medium pot and set over medium heat. When oil is hot, add the onion, celery, bell pepper and carrot and cook until softened, about five minutes. Mix in the lentils, garlic, basil, oregano, pepper flakes, sugar and fennel seeds, if using, and cook and stir two minutes. Mix in the tomato paste and cook one minute more
Add the wine, stock (or broth), crushed tomatoes and bay leaf and bring to a gentle simmer. (Small bubbles should just break on the surface; do not rapidly simmer the lentils.) Adjust the heat as needed to maintain that gentle simmer.
Gently simmer, partially covered, for 40 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally or until sauce has thickened and the lentils are tender. (Don’t completely cover the pot; steam needs to escape as the ragu simmers, thickens and reduces.) As you go along, or when the lentils are tender, add a bit more stock (or broth) if you find the ragu is too thick. Season the lentil ragu with salt and pepper.
Spoon the lentil ragu over bowls of hot pasta. Sprinkle with parsley and Parmesan cheese, if using. If desired, for added richness, drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil on the ragu, then serve.
Eric’s options: If you don’t wish to use wine, simply replace with more stock (or broth).
Asiago Cheese Rolls
Tasty, attractive-looking rolls tastily filled with tangy cheese. Serve them with saucy Italian-style dishes, soups and stews.
Preparation time: 30 minutes, plus rising time
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Makes: 10 rolls
2/3 cup lukewarm (not hot) homo or 2 per cent milk (see Note)
1 packet (2 1/4 tsp) traditional (active dry) yeast
1 tsp granulated sugar
1 large egg
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil (divided), plus some for the bowl
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus some rolling and shaping
1 cup grated asiago cheese
2 to 3 Tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp garlic powder
• pinch ground cayenne pepper
• coarse sea salt, to taste (optional)
Place milk in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a dough hook (see Eric’s options). Sprinkle in the yeast and sugar. Let stand five to 10 minutes, until yeast is dissolved. Mix in the egg and 2 Tbsp olive oil.
Add 1 1/2 cups of flour and 1/4 tsp salt to the bowl and knead on medium speed until dough forms that just starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If dough does not pull away, add additional flour in 1 Tbsp amounts until it does. (The dough should be fairly soft and a little bit sticky). Knead dough on medium speed five to six minutes.
Transfer dough to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise at warm room temperature until doubled in size, about 75 to 90 minutes. While that occurs, place the cheeses, oregano, garlic powder and cayenne pepper in another bowl, toss to combine, then refrigerate until needed.
When dough has risen, line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Lightly flour a work surface and set dough on it. Press dough into a square shape. Now, with a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a 12-inch square.
Brush the top of dough lightly with 1 Tbsp of the remaining olive oil. Sprinkle and evenly spread the grated cheese mixture on the dough. Carefully roll the dough into a tight cylinder. Now, with a floured, sharp knife, cut that cylinder, widthwise, into 10 roughly equal-sized rolls.
Set those rolls, cut side up, on the baking sheet, spacing them about one inch apart. Cover the rolls with a tea towel and let rise again at warm room temperature 60 to 75 minutes, until about doubled in size. It’s OK if the rolls touch as they rise.
When the rolls have risen, preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly brush the tops of the rolls with the remaining 1 Tbsp oil. Sprinkle each roll with a little coarse sea salt, if using. Bake the rolls in the middle of the oven 20 minutes, until puffed and golden. Serve rolls warm or at room temperature.
Note: You can warm milk in a glass measuring cup in the microwave. It should take 20 to 30 seconds. The milk could also be warmed in a small pot on the stovetop.
Eric’s options: If you don’t have a stand mixer, you could mix the dough by hand. To do so, place the milk, yeast and sugar in a medium to large bowl. When yeast is dissolved, mix in the egg and 2 Tbsp oil. With a heavy spoon, gradually mix in one cup of the flour, and the salt, until wet, loose dough forms. Transfer the dough to a floured surface. Knead and mix in 1/2 to 3/4 cup flour, until smooth dough is created. Knead dough six to eight minutes. Let dough rise and make rolls with it as described above.
Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.