It is the very boat in which I’ve been drifting for quite a while now, testing, tasting, chin stroking and mulling over a plethora of recipes. Many of them employed quorn or fake protein manufactured to look like mince, and none of these quite made the grade, perfectly pleasant though they were. I’m not a huge fan of walnuts and was always the one who picked them from the top of a swirly walnut whip to get them out of the way before the serious business of the removing the vanilla fondant from the choccy casing, usually in a manner reminiscent of a greedy anteater. So, though some time ago my much more sensible missus suggested a mushroom and walnut ragù recipe she’d found, I’d avoided it until very recently. Nonetheless, she talked me round and, though I messed with it quite a bit, I am delighted that she did. I think this may just be the way forward on the reliable veggie ragù front for us. The mixed mushrooms bring a toothsome meaty element to the dish, the nuts a lovely rich flavour and texture, and the vegetables an underlying sweetness and goodness, all underpinned by a full-flavoured red wine, herb and tomato sauce. I assure you, hand on heart, that this is well worth a try. And though I don’t want to sound like a goody-two-shoes, there are some lovely health benefits to eating walnuts: it seems that they boost brainpower (something I’ve never needed more than now!), and are mood enhancing, heart healthy, and gut-microbe friendly. And don’t get me started on lentils! Thankfully, if I do say so myself, it was a delicious and deeply flavoured sauce. We’ll be trying it out on meat-eating friends at the earliest opportunity and with quiet confidence.
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 1 carrot, finely chopped
- 1 stick celery, finely chopped quite finely
- ½ leek, trimmed, finely chopped and washed (green and white bits)
- 3 garlic cloves, finely sliced
- 1 tsp tomato paste
- 350 ml red wine (check that the wine is vegetarian/vegan – we have plenty of wines to fit the bill)
- 100g green lentils, rinsed and drained
- 150g mushroom (I used Portobello and shitake mixed) fairly finely chopped
- 150g walnuts, quite finely chopped
- 380g jar passata (a little more won’t hurt if you like)
- Pinch of dried chilli flakes (optional)
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tsp fresh thyme or oregano (or 1 tsp dried thyme/oregano)
- 500 ml vegetable stock
- Salt and ground black pepper
- Small bunch basil, torn
- 400g pasta (I’d suggest pappardelle or other flat noodles, or rigatoni or other ridged tubes, but the choice is yours)
- Vegetarian Italian hard cheese (available in most supermarkets) or a vegan alternative, grated
Cover the green lentils with water with a couple of centimetres to spare. Bring to the boil and then lower the heat to a simmer and cook the lentils until tender. Drain and set aside.
Sauté the chopped onion, carrot, celery and leek in the olive oil for ten to fifteen minutes over a medium heat, until you start to see a little browning that shows the start of caramelisation. Turn the heat to low, add the garlic and tomato paste and cook for a few more minutes. Then add the red wine and bring to the boil and reduce it by half.
Add the lentils, mushrooms, walnuts, passata, chilli if using, bay leaves, thyme or oregano, and stock. Cook over a low heat so that the sauce reduces and thickens, soaking into the mushrooms, and the nuts become tender. Once the sauce has reached the thickness you want, and wet enough to coat the pasta without being soupy, season with the salt and pepper and stir in the torn basil. Keep warm.
Cook the pasta of your choice in plenty of salty boiling water and drain, retaining a couple of tablespoons of the starchy cooking water to stir into the ragù. Turn the pasta in the sauce until it is thoroughly coated and divide it between four warmed bowls, and sprinkle generously, nay liberally, with the cheese. If you have any basil leaves left, by all means add more torn leaves and serve.
Tips: For extra mushroomy oomph and umami you could add some soaked and then chopped dried porcini mushrooms. And if basil isn’t your bag this works nicely with a little sage. Finally, swap some of the red wine for a little Marsala or Madeira for a touch of nutty sweetness that complements the walnuts nicely.
To be honest, you could head for almost any part of Italy and come up trumps with an Italian red wine to suit this dish. I’d probably start the search in the north with the wines of Piedmont, where walnuts are widely appreciated and cooked with. Perhaps a barbera or dolcetto for deliciously easy drinking, or a more serious Barolo or Barbaresco if the boat can be pushed out a little further. Chianti too can hold its own here, and for a rich mouthful The Society's Sicilian Reserve Red has lots of fruit and character to match the umami of the dish, as will a southern Italian aglianico. The Society's Portuguese Red, Península de Setúbal is terrific value, punching above its weight with or without food, and Spanish reds like well-upholstered tempranillos from Rioja or Ribera de Duero are lovely, as are the wonderful garnachas that are popping up almost all over the country. Generously fruited syrah or shiraz wines can also fit the bill. If you feel the need for white wine, though it is a bit trickier, try an orange wine. These are made using some of the techniques of red wine making and have structure and depth that will stand with the dish better than most. Dry white wines with a bit of weight and richness but that don’t neglect the freshness are needed here, if white is the plan. A top South African chenin wine or a full-bodied chardonnay could do the trick, And don’t forget a rosé wine, perhaps an Italian version, with its body and fruit allied to freshness.