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Wild Mushroom Bolognese

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Karen Gibson
Karen Gibson

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Bolognese -- or ragù, as I knew it growing up -- and I have a long history of discontent. My go-to method was clunky, incohesive, and lacking finesse -- barely a method at all. Meat in tomato sauce -- meh. Passable, but I didn't understand the fascination.

It wasn't until I tried Mark Bittman's version that I finally understood the error of my ways and learned to make a bolognese worthy of its reputation: don't cheat on the long simmer, use good wine, and don't forget the cream at the end. Perfection.

These days, my consumption of beef is practically nil, but I still crave that saucy dish, especially when the heat of summer fades to chilly autumn, and I need something warm and glossy to drape over a comforting heap of carbs.

I found the answer to that craving in the mushroom. Meaty, savory, and earthy, its flavor and texture creates an amazing bolognese in its own right.

The very decent and ubiquitous cremini mushroom makes a solid flavor base, while the shiitake add its own indescribable savory goodness. But the icing on the cake is the dried mushrooms. Porcinis -- impossible to find fresh in my area -- are nutty, rich and saltlessly salty, adding a welcome depth to beefless sauces, soups, and stews. They're the stars of this dish.

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In addition to the many health benefits of mushrooms, another advantage of the mushroom version is that it requires far less than the 3+ hours of cooking time of regular bolognese, as there is no beef whose fat must be rendered and melted into the tomato sauce. (I do use bacon for a nice smoky hit, but it's cooked first and doesn't need a long stew over the flame.) A perfect dinner for a chilly Saturday.

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Wild Mushroom Bolognese

Ingredients:
1 palmful dried porcini mushrooms
1 palmful dried chanterelle mushrooms (or sub dried morels)
1 cup very hot water

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 strips bacon, roughly chopped
1 small sweet onion, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
1/4 cup red wine

8 ounces fresh cremini mushrooms, sliced
8-10 fresh shiitake caps, sliced
1 tablespoon tomato paste (homemade, if possible)
28 ounces crushed tomatoes
2 teaspoons fish sauce or Worcestershire sauce (optional)
1/2 cup milk or half-and-half
1 cup Parmesano Reggiano cheese, finely grated
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions:
1. Soak the dried mushrooms in hot water until they're pliable and easy to cut with a knife, about 20 minutes.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large, deep saute pan or dutch oven over medium, until it shimmers. Add the chopped bacon and cook until the fat begins to render. Stir in the onions, celery, and carrots and continue sauteing until soft and the onions are translucent. Pour in the wine, allowing most of the liquid to evaporate before continuing.

3. Remove the re-hydrated mushrooms from the water -- reserve the liquid -- rinse and blot with a paper towel. Chop into 1/2" pieces and add to the cooking vegetables, along with the cremini, shiitakes and a big pinch of salt. Cover the pan with a lid and steam until the mushrooms have exuded their liquids and are dark and soft (about 5 to 8 minutes). Stir in the tomato paste and mix well.

4. Add the crushed tomatoes and fish sauce/Worcestershire sauce (if using) to the pan. Reduce heat to a simmer and partially cover with the lid. Let the sauce do its thing for about a 1/2 hour -- the sauce should be thick and rich. Thin just a bit with the reserved mushroom water for an added touch of mushroom flavor. Taste, seasoning with salt and pepper as needed. Turn the heat to low and allow to rest for 5 minutes.

5. Gently stir in the dairy until completely incorporated into the sauce. Finish with a big palmful of shredded cheese, stirring until it melts and disappears. Serve over pasta or tortellini; top with remaining cheese.

Tips:
  • Fish sauce might sound like a strange addition, but it contributes an amazing umami to sauces, stews, and soups in a way that salt alone simply can't. Try it! (Just don't smell the bottle first.)
  • To make this dish vegetarian, eliminate the bacon (of course) and add a couple of shakes of Liquid Smoke in place of the fish sauce/Worcestershire sauce (Worcestershire sauce contains anchovies).
  • For a dairy-free version, use coconut milk and vegan Parmesan cheese.
  • This dish is naturally gluten-free (make sure you use GF versions of fish sauce/Worcestershire sauce). Serve over rice or -- one of my faves -- rice noodles. Even brown rice noodles have hit my grocery store; they're quick and oh-so-good.)
  • Cooking tomato sauce longer than 15 minutes increases its acidic content. If bolognese sets your heart afire (and not in the good way), add a pinch of baking soda to the sauce before you add the cream. Just the slightest pinch will do -- too much will completely neutralize the flavor.
  • For a full-on carnivore version, see my post on SoupAddict.com.