Vegetarian Lentil Ragù

I’m absolutely certain there would be some Bolognesi rolling over in their graves right now if they knew I was attempting to alter their sacred ragù. Some Bolognese nonna is probably going to haunt me for the rest of my life, constantly scolding me in the kitchen with her meaty ragù-stained apron and wooden spoon in hand, “Vegetarian ragù is NOT ragù! You stupid Americana!”.

You see for the Bolognese people, ragù is the holy majesty of sauces and, well, meat is a pretty important part of the recipe. Actually, it’s an kind of an essential ingredient, the thing that gives the ragù all of its flavor. 

So vegetarian ragù? I must be insane. 


Well, that’s fine. I guess I’ll have to live with the guilt. After all, in Italy tradition is tradition. You can’t fight it, especially when there’s THE official recipe for Ragù alla Bolognese sitting in the Bologna Chamber of Commerce building, probably filed away in some highly protective fireproof vault. Deposited in 1982 by the Accademia italiana della cucina (Italian Culinary Academy), followed by a dozen others hall of fame recipes deemed to be “truly Bolognese”, the official Ragù recipe stipulates the sauce contain ground beef, pancetta, carrot, celery, onion, tomato sauce, white wine, whole milk, broth, olive oil, butter and salt.

As much as I love Italian culinary tradition (this is the main topic of a book I am working on about traditional Bolognese cuisine, A Foodie’s Guide to Bologna, coming soon!) I must admit I am a sincere advocate for reinventing traditional recipes, making them into something new and different. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the real ragù recipe – trust me it’s worth every penny of praise it receives – it’s just that I enjoy a good challenge of trying to recreate similar flavors with a different set of ingredients. So this is my attempt at making an extremely meaty sauce into a vegetarian one. Why I set myself such an absurd challenge is beyond me… but alas here I am, ranting about vegeterian ragù.

The truth is I always feel bad for all the vegetarians who come to Bologna. The terms ‘Traditional Bolognese’ and ‘vegetarian’ are practically antonyms. There aren’t really any typical dishes from Bologna that don’t contain meat or some form of it. These vegetarians will never taste the joy of Bolognese cooking! It’s just not fair.

I myself am not a vegetarian, but I do eat a lot of meatless meals and absolutely adore vegetables and legumes of all sorts. I also have a few vegetarian friends who have inspired and challenged my culinary creativity, especially when cooking Bolognese recipes which almost always contain some form of meat.

Vegetarian Lentil Ragu

In this recipe, I’ve replaced the meat with dried lentils, and the meat broth with vegetable broth. Everything else is more or less how the original Bolognese Ragù sauce stipulates, my act to preserve tradition in the best way possible and keep the Bolognesi from haunting me for the rest of my life.

To my dear Bolognesi: I’m making my disclaimer here and now. This isn’t exactly what you might have in mind when you think of ragù, but I promise it’s equally as hearty and comforting as the real deal. It’s also slightly less fattening and more nutritious (winning!). Not to mention my vegetarian friends were very happy and I’m willing to bet there are others who might like a little taste of this Bologna-inspired dish, senza carne.

Vegetarian Lentil Ragù

Serves 10 (makes about 10 cups of ragù)

2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 carrots
3 celery stalks
1 large yellow onion
500 grams dried lentils
⅓ cup white wine
1 liter vegetable stock
2 bay leaves
1 ½ tablespoons of concentrated tomato paste
500 grams tomato sauce
½ cup whole milk

The base for all ragu: celery, carrots, onion

Chop carrots, celery and onion very finely. In a large pan heat oil and add chopped vegetables. Cook on medium heat until soft.

Chopped ragu vegetables

Cooked ragu vegetables

Rinse lentils under running water and wash thoroughly. Add lentils to pan and cook for about 1 minute. Add white wine and cook for another minute.

Dried Lentils

Add broth and bay leaves. Dilute tomato paste in a cup of water and add to pan. Add tomato sauce. Stir well. Cover and let simmer for 40 minutes, or until lentils are soft and begin to break apart.

Simmering vegetarian lentil ragu

Stir in milk and continue cooking for another 10 minutes.

Sprinkle with parmesan cheese!

Serve over tagliatelle pasta or another thick ribbon pasta (fettuccine, pappardelle – rigatoni would also be a good option). Sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese as desired.