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?
A red lentil ragu takes about half an hour to make from start to finish, and needs basic pantry staples, plus some basil if you have it (see substitutions below).
Ingredient Notes and Substitutions
- Crushed tomatoes or passata: whole canned tomatoes, or diced, are fine too (and whole tomatoes are often of better quality). Puree them before adding to the sauce.
- Dried red lentils: 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.
- Basil: 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.
- Greens: spinach, kale, chard, rucola (rocket/arugula), frozen or fresh, all work in this recipe if you would like to add additional greens. Use whatever you have on hand.
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).
How to Store
Storage: refrigerate in a sealed container for 3-4 days and reheat as usual.
Freezing: place cooled bolognese into airtight containers and freeze for up to a month. Thaw in the refrigerator before reheating to serve.
- Deglaze with vinegar: the balsamic vinegar will lift any bits that may be stuck to the bottom of the pot. This is more likely to happen with aluminium or enamel pots.
- Season to taste: before serving, be sure to taste the sauce and add salt or pepper if needed. If you are sensitive to any spice, omit the pepper flakes.
- Thin if needed: use the water from cooking pasta if possible (if you are making to serve with pasta, and not to store) to thin the sauce if necessary.
- Optionally sweeten: a bit of maple syrup or honey can be added if the tomatoes are quite acidic, and this will help to balance that out.
More Recipes Using Jarred Tomatoes
Vegan Tomato Soup
Cauliflower Tikka Masala
Carrot, Red Lentil, and Spinach Soup
Coconut Milk Chili
If you make this Red Lentil Bolognese or any other vegetarian main dishes on Occasionally Eggs, please take a moment to rate the recipe and leave a comment below. It’s such a help to others who want to try the recipe. For more OE, follow along on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest, purchase the Occasionally Eggs cookbook, or subscribe for new posts via email.
- 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 canned crushed tomatoes (two cans)
- 500 ml vegetable broth or water
- 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.2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 large onion
- 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.3 cloves garlic, 1 teaspoon sea salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1 tablespoon 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.800 ml canned crushed tomatoes, 500 ml vegetable broth, 150 grams dried red 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.1 teaspoon maple syrup, 20 grams fresh basil, roughly chopped
* For American cup measurements, please click the pink link text above the ingredient list that says ‘American’.
Nutrition is provided as a courtesy and is an estimate. If this information is important to you, please have it verified independently.
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.
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