In a week that I had sort of a lot going on, and didn’t get around to cooking anything particularly red, I spotted a Facebook post of my sister, where she wrote about a saucy lentil dish that I had never tried. I call it serendipity. This post is brought to you by Kim Porcelli.
I have two food personalities. One is a 90-year-old Frenchman, who likes meat, and wine, and cheese, and who eats tons of good bread, buttered extravagantly. The other is a crunchy-granola Californian who thinks about pulses and who takes dinner salads seriously and who can multi-taskingly appreciate the ambrosial perfection of French organic apples while guilting over the carbon footprint. And who likes to feel healthy, and who earnestly and genuinely believes food can really change you, even a little, for the better, from the inside.
This recipe makes lovely friends of both of my food personalities. It came from a desire to find more veg-centric things to eat, because I’d love to eat more healthily (I have very little self-control when a recipe is really good, and eating two bowls of bolognese, and then going back for thirds of just sauce, is less-not-OK when it’s made of lentils). And because I’d learned recently that the cattle-farming industry is catastrophically bad for the environment. And because meat is expensive, and I’ve not always had time to get to the supermarket or the butcher’s. And because I wanted my son, who is not quite one year old, to make friends with vegetables at as young an age as possible, so that eating them is not a big deal, or even something he thinks about. A lot of my mom-group friends are already ‘hiding vegetables in food’ at the 11-month mark. I don’t want to sneak around gastronomically at this early point in my parenting career. I’d rather just cook badass vegetable dishes that we both like where my son yells and pounds his little high-chair desk for more and I look at the last few spoonfuls and really have to think about it before giving them to him and not eating them myself.
So I’d found this recipe: a bolognese made with lentils as the central ingredient, rather than beef, created by Alissa Saenz on her blog Connoisseurus Veg. I got most of the way through the cooking of it, and then got to thinking. My sister, your usual host with the most right here on this blog, gave me Marcella Hazan’s famous cookbook for Christmas, after I’d cooked her legendary onion and butter tomato sauce, having heard about it for the first time right here back in October: it was Red Sauce Fridays no.5 (isn’t this blog fabulous?). Also, my mother and I had been talking about bolognese, and about Marcella, over Christmas— historically, my mother hates beef and anything beef-adjacent, yet she really likes Marcella’s bolognese.
So, standing over the pot, I wondered: maybe I could Marcella this up a bit. So to the original recipe I added a few of the magical guest stars that make Marcella’s bolognese world-class: some nutmeg, and white wine, and milk. I also added carrot and celery, as I am a huge fan of aromatics— cooking for a tiny boy has taught me how to get along just fine without the use of too-salty bouillon cubes (and, in fact, often without salt itself). I also left out the sugar in the original recipe, as—especially if you love the bright sweetness of red bell peppers, as I do— you’ll find that it’s completely unnecessary. Possibly best of all, there is NO three-hour Marcella cooking time. Just cook, and when it tastes good to you, eat.
I gather that the pasta that goes with bolognese is tagliatelle, but what we had in the house, and what my son and I are both really into at the moment, is fusilli tricolore (fusilli is easy for teeny hands to grab). Bon appétit, and also: enjoy it, man, right on.
adapted from Alissa Saenz by Kim Porcelli (channeling Marcella Hazan)
1 onion, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
2 1/2 cups canned tomatoes
1 red bell pepper, chopped fine
1 1/2 cups cooked green lentils, rinsed & drained
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
grind of black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 carrot, chopped fine
1 rib celery, chopped fine
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup milk
Soften the onion in olive oil over medium heat. When it’s nearly softened, add the garlic and soften it too. (I chopped these as finely as I could, thinking of my my 11-month-old who is still negotiating chewing things, but in fact chopping everything quite finely, including the bell pepper, improved the flavor and particularly the texture of the sauce. It was complex and rugged, but not chunky. I don’t like chunky.)
Add the tomatoes, bell pepper, lentils, seasoning, black pepper, nutmeg, carrots, and celery.
(As far as I know, aromatics are usually sautéed and added at the very start of a recipe, but I’m reading elsewhere in Marcella’s book that sometimes you don’t sauté them first but add them later ‘a crudo’, if you’d like a stronger flavour. It certainly worked here, however accidentally.)
Add the wine, then stir until it’s been absorbed. By which I mean, until the sauce stops smelling and tasting strongly of wine. (Not long.)
Then add the milk, a half-cup at a time, again stirring it in.
Drizzle in some extra olive oil. (As meat has more fat in it than lentils, I figured, let’s add a bit of extra fat. Huzzah for extra fat!)
Simmer a bit longer, but, really, toss with pasta and eat as soon as you like.