Main Course/ Vegetarian

Red Lentil Bolognese

May 20, 2020 by Chef Molly

Red Lentil Bolognese is a vegetarian/vegan take on traditional bolognese sauce. Chunky and satisfying, and packed with Italian flavor. Red lentils cook into the sauce for texture and an extra protein boost. 

plate of lentil bolognese on fettuccine noodles with cherry tomatoes in background

One thing I’ve learned in the course of trying to cook and eat more vegetarian dishes is that sometimes what you miss about meat is actually its texture. Luckily, once you know that, you can start thinking about how to replace the texture of meat rather than a particular flavor. So if you love a good meaty pasta sauce, but want to try a vegetarian or vegan version, I encourage you to check out this Lentil Bolognese recipe. 

The bolognese sauce in this recipe combines finely chopped onions, garlic, and carrots with red lentils in the base of a thick tomato sauce. Italian herbs and a little bit of red wine add depth of flavor, and make your kitchen smell like an Italian nonna’s. You can serve it over whatever pasta you like for a totally vegan recipe, or choose to sprinkle it with parmesan cheese and maybe add some buttery garlic bread on the side for a vegetarian meal. Anyway you eat it, the sauce is packed with healthy ingredients and a hearty texture. 

carrot, onion, garlic cloves, olive oil, basil, red wine, red lentils, oregano, vegetable broth, and tomato puree

How Do You Make Lentil Bolognese?

1. Chop 1 small onion into small pieces. Dice 1 large carrot into very small cubes. Mince 2 garlic cloves.

chopped onions, carrots, and garlic on cutting board

2. In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, carrot, and garlic, and sauté until softened, about 8 minutes.

softened onion, garlic, and carrots cooked in large saucepan

3. Add 18 ounces of tomato puree, 3/4 cups vegetable broth, 1/4 cup red wine, 1/4 c. red lentils, 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, 1/4 teaspoon dried basil, and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt.

saucepan full of tomato puree, vegetable broth, red wine, red lentils, oregano, basil, and salt

4. Cook for about 8 minutes, stirring frequently, then turn down heat to medium-low. Continue to simmer gently for 15-20 minutes. Carrots and lentils should be tender. Taste and add additional salt and pepper, if desired.

lentil bolognese sauce in large saucepan with wooden spatula

5. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta in the boiling water until tender (refer to the instructions on your package). Drain and return pasta to the pan.

6. Serve pasta immediately topped with lentil bolognese sauce, and garnished with parmesan cheese (if desired). 

plate of lentil bolognese on fettuccine with fork, napkin and salad bowl and wine in background

Note: Tomatoes and tomato puree vary in acidity. Taste sauce after it has simmered for 10 minutes or so. If it tastes too acidic, add a tablespoon of brown sugar. 

Ingredient Substitutions for Lentil Bolognese

  • Onion: You can replace the yellow onion with a white onion or red onion. You could also replace with a couple of shallots. 
  • Garlic: If you don’t have fresh garlic cloves, add 1/2 teaspoon of granulated garlic to the sauce as it’s cooking.
  • Tomato Purée: You can replace tomato puree with a can of diced tomatoes if you prefer a chunkier sauce. I like the smoothness of the puree with the small bits of carrot and lentils in it, but a chunky sauce also has its appeal! You can also use a can of whole tomatoes, though you’ll need to break up the whole tomatoes with a spatula or with your hands. 
  • Vegetable Broth: Replace this with water if you don’t have vegetable broth. You could also use chicken or beef broth, if you are not trying to make a vegetarian dish. 
  • Red Wine: Feel free to replace with with water or more broth if you don’t want to use wine.
  • Herbs: This recipe calls for dried basil and dried oregano, but any Italian herbs would work. You can also put in a dried bay leaf if you’d like.
  • Parmesan Cheese: Leave this out as a garnish if you are looking for a vegan lentil bolognese! Or try a vegan version of parmesan. You can find vegan parm at some groceries, or even make your own. 

Which Lentils Should You Use for Bolognese Sauce?

This recipe calls for red lentils, which are usually found as split lentils (like split peas). Red lentils tend to soften completely during cooking, so they are great to add texture to this bolognese sauce without being too obvious. Green and brown lentils tend to hold their shape more even after cooking. You can use them in a bolognese sauce, but make sure to read the package for cooking time. Some lentils, especially French green lentils, can take up to 45 minutes to cook. If you choose to use them in this dish, you’ll probably want to add some water or broth to the sauce because some of it will cook off as you’re waiting for the lentils to become tender. 

Can You Make This Dish in Advance?

Yes, it’s no problem to make this sauce in advance. You can either make the whole thing, let it cool, and refrigerate until ready to use (up to 3 days in advance) or freeze it (see below). Or, you can turn down the heat on your stove and continue to let it simmer for un to a couple of hours. If it looks like it is getting too thick, just add in a bit more vegetable broth or water. 

Is This Dish Vegan?

Aside from the optional parmesan cheese garnish, this dish is completely vegan! Lentils are a great substitute for meat in many dishes. In this dish, they replace not only the protein you get from adding meat to your tomato sauce, but also mimic a bit of the texture as well. Feel free to also top this with a vegan parmesan cheese alternative. 

What is Bolognese Sauce?

Bolognese sauce is a traditional Italian meat-based pasta sauce that is simmered over a long period of time until quite thick. The sauce usually includes onion, celery, carrots, beef, pork, tomatoes, white wine, and milk. Traditionally, meat is the focus, and the sauce is seasoned only with salt, pepper, and occasionally nutmeg. No garlic or Italian herbs, except possibly a bay leaf. It is usually served over pasta ribbons, or used to prepare lasagna. However, over time and distance, the term bolognese sauce has come to refer to a more tomato-focused sauce that includes minced beef or pork, garlic, and herbs. This lentil bolognese version is more inspired by the latter category, though the use of carrots and onions is a nod to the traditional origins of bolognese.

overview shot of plate with lentil bolognese sauce on top of pasta with salad bowl, cherry tomatoes, red wine, and napkin next to it

Can You Freeze Lentil Bolognese?

Yes, this is a very freezable sauce! Just store in an airtight container or in a ziplock freezer bag with the air pressed out. It’s best to freeze the sauce by itself, rather than freezing the combined sauce and pasta dish. Frozen pasta tends to be soggy when thawed and reheated. To defrost the sauce, move the container to the refrigerator 24 hours before you want to use it. Then reheat in a saucepan on the stove, adding more water or vegetable broth to loosen it up, if it needs it. You can also microwave it in a microwave-safe bowl on 70% power, stirring every 30 seconds, until hot.

Are Red Lentils Good for You?

Yes, absolutely! Red lentils (along with brown and green lentils) are high in protein and fiber, and contain good amounts of B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, and potassium. They also include over 30% of the recommended daily intake of iron, which is excellent for vegetarians and vegans. Lentils are definitely worth adding to your diet on a regular basis!

What Should You Serve with Lentil Bolognese?

Lentil bolognese is a hearty sauce that is perfect on any kind of thick, flat noodles, like fettuccine. You can also serve it on zucchini noodles for a gluten-free option. On the side, you might choose a green salad like this Kale and Brussels Sprouts Salad with Miso Dressing or maybe this Pear Gorgonzola Salad with Glazed Walnuts. These Green Beans Almondine with Pomegranate Seeds would fit nicely with dinner. Or maybe you’d want to serve next to an Easy Zucchini Gratin or some simple Roasted Broccoli and Carrots.  

Other Vegetarian Main Course Recipes

If you’re looking for some other vegetarian dinner options, I’ve got you covered. I love this Creamy Spinach Artichoke Pasta dish featuring a to-die-for spinach-artichoke cream sauce. If it’s summer where you are, my Caprese Crepes are super easy and highlight farm-fresh tomatoes. If grain bowls are your thing, I’d highly recommend this Ramen Egg Rice Bowl and this Parmesan Pearl Barley Grain Bowl.

Main course salads are also some of my go-tos for easy vegetarian meals, like this Quinoa Chickpea Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette and this Orzo Pasta Salad with Black Beans and Corn. For a totally vegan option, don’t miss one of my favorite dishes of all time: Vegan Chickpea Curry with Spinach. And, this Tofu Fried Rice is on repeat in my house, for how easy it is to throw together at the end of a long day. 

Red Lentil Bolognese

Red Lentil Bolognese

Yield: Serves 6
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 35 minutes
Total Time: 50 minutes

Lentil Bolognese is a vegetarian take on traditional bolognese sauce, packed with Italian flavor and featuring red lentils for protein and texture!

Ingredients

  • 1 small yellow onion
  • 1 large carrot
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 520g (18 oz.) tomato purée
  • 3/4 c. vegetable broth or water
  • 1/4 c. red wine
  • 1/2 c. red lentils, rinsed (90g)
  • 1/2 t. dried oregano
  • 1/4 t. dried basil
  • 1/4 t. kosher salt
  • 12 oz. dried pasta
  • Grated parmesan cheese, to serve, if desired

Instructions

    1. Chop onion into small pieces.
    2. Dice carrot into very small cubes.
    3. Mince garlic cloves.
    4. In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat.
    5. Add onion, carrot, and garlic, and sauté until softened, about 8 minutes.
    6. Add tomato puree, vegetable broth, red wine, red lentils, oregano, basil, and salt. Cook for about 8 minutes, stirring frequently, then turn down heat to medium-low.
    7. Continue to simmer gently for 15-20 minutes. Carrots and lentils should be tender. Taste and add additional salt and pepper, if desired.
    8. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta in the boiling water until tender (refer to the instructions on your package). Drain.
    9. Serve pasta immediately, topped with lentil bolognese sauce, and garnished with parmesan cheese (if desired).

Notes

  • Tomatoes and tomato puree vary in acidity. Taste sauce after it has simmered for 10 minutes or so. If it tastes too acidic, add a tablespoon of brown sugar.
  • Substitute more vegetable broth or water in place of the red wine, if you don't have any.
  • Leave off the parmesan cheese garnish if making a vegan dish, or subsitute with vegan parmesan cheese.
  • Red lentil bolognese sauce can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 3 months. To freeze, place in an airtight container or ziplock freezer bag. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator before reheating in saucepan on stovetop.

Nutrition Information:
Yield: 6 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 171Total Fat: 5gSaturated Fat: 1gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 4gCholesterol: 1mgSodium: 242mgCarbohydrates: 23gFiber: 3gSugar: 2gProtein: 5g

Nutrition information is provided as a general reference for users courtesy of the online nutrition calculator Nutritionix. Note: nutrition facts for this recipe are only for the sauce, not the pasta, since pasta nutritional information can vary dramatically.

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