I know this seems sacrilegious -- to make bolognese without meat, but I just had to offer up a vegetarian version of this dish. I created a version that uses chicken thighs and mushrooms, which is a family favorite. However, I wanted to go one step further an omit the meat and poultry all together.
Mushrooms are not my favorite thing to eat, but in a dish like this, they offer that meatiness and umami flavor that is greatly desired. Even though I know mushrooms are present in the sauce, they aren't hitting me over the head with their presence.
This sauce requires about 2-3 hours of simmering time for the flavors to develop. You could make this in a crockpot set on low over 8 hours. It's delicious over pasta or polenta. And definitely serve with a glass of chianti and crusty bread.
You won't miss the meat here. Trust me.
*For this recipe, I love to use a food processor to chop up the vegetables. You can pulse the onions and garlic together until finely chopped; same with the mushrooms.
Place the dried mushrooms in a small bowl and pour the hot water over. All the mushrooms to soften, about 15-20 minutes. Drain and reserve the mushroom water and the mushrooms. Finely chop the rehydrated mushrooms. Set aside until ready to use.
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan set over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic; sauté for 5-7 minutes. Add the rosemary and season lightly with salt and pepper; sauté for 1-2 minutes. Add the crimini and porcini mushrooms. Reduce heat slightly to medium low and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste; cook for 3-4 minutes (helps bring out the flavor). Deglaze with the red wine; allow to reduce slightly. Pour in the tomatoes and rinse the can out with about a cup of water. Add the tomato water to the mixture. Stir in the mushroom water. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
Reduce heat to low. Simmer for 2-3 hours. The sauce will reduce by about a third. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve with pasta or polenta.
Originating from Bologna in Italy, traditional bolognese is a slow cooked meat sauce made with beef or a combination of beef and pork (and sometimes veal). Since I'm a dietitian, I always look for ways to make recipes healthier and steer away from beef whenever possible. I save beef consumption for special meals (like an all-beef chili or a filet mignon) and will only use grass-fed beef in these preparations. Grass-fed beef tends to be pricier than grain-fed beef, especially if you live in the Midwest, like me, making it a special occasion treat for us.
So, when it comes to making a slow-cooked meat sauce to serve over pasta, I had to find ways to make it just as hearty and tasty as the traditional recipe. The secret: Mushrooms. Mushrooms contain a flavor profile called "umami," which is a savory taste, almost meat-like. MSG (monosodium glutamate) contains the "umami" flavor, along with soy sauce, both of which add depth of flavor to dishes. Mushrooms are the ultimate umami flavor enhancer in recipes when you want to forego beef and pork. By adding mushrooms to the recipe, you add that savory, meat-like flavor that beef provides but with way less calories and fat. Chicken thighs are added as a meat component in this recipe. To chop the chicken thighs, you don't need a meat grinder but rather, use your food processor. In fact, use your food processor for all the chopping of the vegetables, too.
As with the traditional recipe, this recipe needs to cook for 2-3 hours to develop in flavor. You will also need wine - both for the recipe and for drinking as the sauce cooks (of course!). Choose an Italian wine like a Chianti or Sangiovese (or even a Barolo or Barbaresco if you want to go that route).
Chicken and Mushroom Bolognese
Put the chicken thighs into the bowl of a food processor, pulse several times until the chicken is finely ground. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the ground chicken to the oil and begin to brown. Chop the onions and garlic in the food processor until chopped fine, about 15-20 pulses. Add the onions and garlic to the meat. Sauté for 3-5 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Finely chop the mushrooms in the food processor. Add the mushrooms to the meat mixture. Sauté for another 3-5 minutes. Add the tomato paste; cook for 1-2 minutes. Add the red wine, tomatoes, and bay leaf. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for about 3 hours.
Taste the sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper. About 30 minutes before the sauce is done, cook the pasta in salted boiling water until al dente. Drain and add about a 1/4 cup of the pasta water to the sauce. Add the pasta to the sauce; toss to coat well.
Serve the pasta with crusty bread and grated Parmesan cheese.
The reason I call this winter squash gnocchi as opposed to pumpkin or butternut squash gnocchi is because I don't want to pigeon hole this recipe into using certain types of winter squash.
And quite frankly, I'm tired of everything pumpkin.
There I said it. I'm not a big fan of pumpkin to begin with and everywhere you look, you see pumpkin this and pumpkin that. Geez. Must everything be pumpkin flavored between September and November? Where did this stem from? Is there a pumpkin lobby I didn't know about?
But I digress... this is about gnocchi and making it with other types of winter squash available at the farmers market or grocery store. I wrote a post regarding the many types of winter squash that is being published this week. That way, you can get educated regarding the world of winter squash.
So, a note about gnocchi...
If you've made pasta from scratch, then you can make gnocchi. All it is an Italian dumpling that is typically made with potatoes. So for this version, instead of potatoes, I used winter squash that was roasted in the oven about 1-2 days before I made the gnocchi.
Also, it's important to get the sauce finished prior to putting the gnocchi dough together because once you make the dough, you cut them into dumplings and cook them in salted boiling water. The cooking process is very quick, about 3 minutes and then you throw them into the sauce. Or you can enlist the help of a friend or two (or family members) to help make the dish. One person on sauce; another person making gnocchi.
Make sense? Good. Let's get started.
Winter Squash Gnocchi
Roast the winter squash:
Preheat oven to 375ºF. Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Brush a baking sheet with a little olive or canola oil. Place the squash cut side down on the sheet. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until soft and tender. Remove from oven and cool completely before scooping out the flesh. This can be done 1-2 days ahead of time; keep squash in the refrigerator until ready to use. Photos of roasting the squash are at the end of the post.
Make the sauce:
Heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add the pepper flakes, shallots, garlic, and pancetta; saute for 4-5 minutes. The pancetta will get slightly crispy. Add the sliced mushrooms and sage; saute for 4-5 minutes. Pour in the stock. Reduce slightly, about 10 minutes. Add the cream; bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the grated cheese. Keep the sauce warm, stirring occasionally.
Make the gnocchi:
Make sure you have a pot of water ready to go for cooking the gnocchi (boiling and salted).
If you haven't done so already, scoop out the flesh from the cooled squash. Mash or puree the cooked squash until smooth. Thoroughly mix together the squash with the eggs, parmesan cheese, and goat cheese. Add 1 cup of flour, salt, and pepper. Mix until a dough begins to form. If the dough seems too sticky (it should be soft but not sticky), add more flour. You may need 1/2-3/4 cup more flour depending on how much moisture the squash was holding. For me, I only used about 1 1/4 cups of flour but you might need closer to 2 cups, depending on the squash you are using. Knead for about 2-3 minutes or until the dough is no longer sticky. Do not overwork the dough or it will turn out tough.
Cut the dough into 4 pieces. Roll each piece into a rope about 18-24 inches long. Cut into 1-inch pieces. Roll each piece down the tines of a fork to create grooves in the gnocchi. Boil the gnocchi in batches in the salted, boiling water. When the gnocchi float, they're done; about 2-3 minutes. Drain and place cooked gnocchi into the sauce. Cook the gnocchi in the sauce for 3-4 minutes before serving.
Serve with crusty bread and extra parmesan cheese.