My favourite higher protein pasta sauce – lentil bolognese! This is essentially my vegan marinara with red lentils and some other bits and bobs added, and much more filling as a result. Lentils are not going to mimic the texture of a classic bolognese perfectly – a good thing in my books – but sometimes it’s nice to have some more heft in a pasta sauce.
If you want to go all out, make your own kamut or spelt pasta (pictured) along with the sauce. It’s a big batch and freezes well, so it makes an excellent weeknight dinner with dried pasta if you take a jar out of the freezer in the morning. Who needs store bought sauce?
- Olive oil
- Onion (red or white)
- Balsamic vinegar
- Crushed tomatoes/passata (jarred/canned)
- Dried red lentils
- Vegetable stock or water
- Maple syrup, or honey if not vegan
- Sea salt
- Black pepper
- Red pepper flakes
- Spinach or other greens (optional)
In a large pot, heat the oil over low-medium. Once the pan is hot, cook the onion for a few minutes, or until it’s translucent and fragrant. Add the garlic and cook for a minute, or until lightly golden but not browned.
Add the balsamic vinegar and stir to lift any bits that may be stuck to the bottom of the pot. This is more likely to happen with aluminium or enamel pots. Stir in the tomatoes, then add the water/stock and lentils. Add the maple syrup, salt, pepper, and pepper flakes.
Simmer over low-medium heat, covered, for about 15 minutes, or until the lentils are cooked through. If the sauce seems too thick, thin with a little more stock or water. Taste at this point and season to your preference.
Add the basil and greens, if using, then taste and season as needed. Serve immediately or cool fully before storing in the refrigerator or freezer.
Tips and Notes
Generally I’d recommend cooking anything tomato based for a longer period of time than this recipe states. Due to the shorter cooking time, there are a couple of flavour boosters here – the balsamic vinegar and the maple syrup in particular, to round everything out.
Make sure you use a jarred tomato that you like. Some brands are very acidic, and a sweeter, higher quality one will always taste better (but make a particular difference here with the shorter cooking time).
It is possible to use fresh tomatoes instead, if they’re in season. You’d need about a kilo (2.2 lb.) of fresh tomatoes, and puree them in a blender or with an immersion blender before you start cooking.
The older your dried lentils are, the longer they’ll take to cook, so if it’s taking more than the 15 minute simmer that’s likely why. You can soak them ahead of time to shorten the cooking time. (Soaked red lentils also make an excellent red lentil falafel).
The recipe card calls for fresh basil but you can use any herbs you prefer. I grow a lot of basil in the summer, and only use it fresh. Oregano and thyme are both good dried, but basil isn’t – if you’re using dried, stick with those two and ditch the basil.
Regular whole canned tomatoes, or diced, are fine too (and whole tomatoes are often of better quality). Puree them before adding to the sauce.
It is possible to use other types of lentils rather than red, if you keep in mind that their cooking time is generally longer, and the texture will change. Split or whole both work.
Spinach, kale, chard, rucola, frozen or fresh, all work in this recipe if you would like to add additional greens. Use whatever you have on hand.
More Recipes Using Jarred Tomatoes
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- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion diced (about 1 cup)
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes optional
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 800 ml two normal cans crushed tomatoes
- 500 ml water or vegetable broth
- 150 grams dried red lentils
- 1 teaspoon maple syrup or honey if not vegan
- 20 grams fresh basil, roughly chopped
- Heat a large pot over medium, then add the olive oil. Stir in the diced onion and cook, stirring frequently, for about five minutes, or until softened and translucent.
- Add the garlic and cook for about a minute, or until fragrant. Stir in the salt, pepper, and pepper flakes, then add the balsamic vinegar.
- Add the crushed tomatoes and water, then cover and increase the heat to high. Bring the sauce to a rolling boil (it will be thin at this point) then stir in the lentils.
- Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, covered, for about 15 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. If the lentils are older they may take a little longer to cook.
- Cook your pasta during this time if you’re having the bolognese with pasta.
- Once the lentils are cooked, add the maple syrup and taste the sauce. Season to your preference, then stir in the basil and serve immediately. Cooled and stored in airtight containers, this sauce freezes very well for up to a month.
This post was originally published in March 2015. It has been updated with new photos and text, and improvements to the recipe, as of August 2020.