I have discovered that, although I love my homemade tomato sauce with meat, I've managed to make a vegan version that is just as good.
I'm not kidding. I've had a few people taste it: vegetarians, newly-healthy eaters, and avid meat eaters. All of us agree that it is amazing.
The most important part of the sauce is the canned tomatoes you use. My mother, Gran Fran, swears by canned San Marzano tomatoes. They just taste better, even if they cost way more than the others. I think she learned about these from her Italian grandmothers, who hail from Southern Italy, not sure. They make for a much richer flavor, real tomato-y and not metallic at all. I used the diced ones. I'm sure Gran Fran is not happy with this at all, but the pre-diced ones make my life easier and the sauce chunkier.
When we were kids Gran Fran used to make use push whole canned tomatoes through a sieve to extract the seeds, skin and core. No matter what, I somehow always had a cut on my hand, which the acid from the tomato would burn. Gran Fran had no time for these kinds of complaints. There was likely some sort of a response along the lines of "When I was your age, we had to can the tomatoes ourselves." Or some such other silliness.
The addition of a generous handful of fennel seeds to the sauce makes it taste just like it does when I put sweet Italian sausage in there. I've tried it without the fennel, and it's just kind of bland, still better than store bought, but nothing special. A great trick that Gran Fran uses is to heat up the tomato paste in a small saucepan and most of the dried spices to it and some olive oil. By cooking them together, the tomato paste picks up the flavors and distributes them into the sauce more evenly. I think Gran Fran told me once that cooking the spices this way makes their flavors release more strongly. It's one of those things I do because my Mom told me to.
Oh, and don't forget to brown some garlic lightly before putting the tomato sauce and wine in the pot.
I do also add a half bottle of red wine. Any kind will do, even cheap stuff, though more expensive wines definitely add a little more depth to the sauce.
Cooking for a really long time over a low heat once everything is incorporated (Gran Fran-ism) is key to your sauce's success. This time I had to go out for a few hours after I started to sauce. I turned the flame off and let the pot sit until I came back, partially covered. This seemed to help the sauce thicken because when I came back, it was more set than when I left. I turned the flame back on and cooked it for another two hours, for a total cooking time of 4 hours. Slow cookers can be tried here, but I have not had the best luck with getting a good thick sauce in my slow cooker until the second day, reheating on the stove.
I'm going to make a bunch of this and can it for future use (or sale, who knows?). Last night, in a rush to make myself something to eat, I was lucky enough to find a gluten-free pizza crust in my cupboard and a jar of this fabulous tomato sauce in my fridge. Let me tell you, with a couple of anchovies and some pine nuts, I had myself a wonderful pizza, in under 20 minutes.
Bolognese Sauce: Italian Vegan Tomato Sauce
- 2 cans San Marzano diced tomatoes
- 4 cloves garlic, smashed, skins removed
- 1/8 cup olive oil
- 2 tbsps tomato paste
- 1/2 bottle red wine
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 teaspoons fennel seeds
- 2 teaspoons oregano
- 1 spring fresh rosemary
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
- Heat the olive oil in a heavy bottomed non-reactive pan. Add the garlic and let sit for two minutes, just before it browns.
- Pour both cans of diced tomatoes into the pan, bringing it to a boil.
- Heat a small saucepan over medium heat and add the tomato past, fennel, oregano, rosemary, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper.
- Cook the tomato paste and spices for three minutes, until fragrant.
- Add the tomato paste with spices, the red wine and the bay leaves to the boiling tomato sauce.
- Boil for one more minute, stir, then reduce the heat to a simmer.
- Cover the pan halfway and cook for two hours, stirring occasionally.
- Turn off the heat for an hour or two, keeping the sauce in the partially covered pan.
- Return the heat to high, bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for an additional two hours, stirring occasionally.
- Serve over pasta, on pizza or over broiled chicken breasts.