Storey publicist Matt LaBombard swaps meat for mushrooms in this vegan interpretation of a warm, hearty lamb-based sauce from Dishing Up® Oregon.

When it comes to novels and narratives, I don’t have much interest in sitting down and reading. Sure, it’s a little strange that someone working in publishing isn’t a prolific reader, but then again, there’s something a little strange in us all.

I do, however, love to pour through cookbooks. I could spend hours flipping through pages of culinary writings and photographs—there’s just something about the combination of photography, anecdotes, and personalization permeating the pages of cookbooks that I can’t get enough of.

There is one cookbook experience that gets me down, and that’s reading a delicious-sounding recipe only to find that the ingredient list is stacked with meat and dairy—not so ideal for a vegan! But swapping out ingredients that I don’t use for those that I love has become a challenge that I’ve taken head-on and a regular way of cooking for me, which is why, when I saw a recipe for Spring Lamb Ragù in Dishing Up® Oregon, I had to put my vegan spin on it.

The ultimate comfort food, ragù generally calls for meat, chicken stock, and cheese. To make my version, I swapped out the lamb for a mix of assorted mushrooms, and added a dash of liquid smoke to fill in for the smoky bacon flavor (one word of caution: liquid smoke can be potent! Start with ¼ teaspoon and add more to taste). Then, I substituted vegetable stock for chicken stock and omitted the cheese. Red pepper flakes add a bit of kick, a little sugar cuts the acidity of the tomatoes and—one final flourish—a mixture of walnuts and nutritional yeast provides a delicious “cheesy” topping to the dish.

If you’re new to vegetarian and vegan cooking, or even if you just want the freedom to swap out ingredients you don’t like, I encourage you to think creatively about how to make easy substitutions. There are great solutions to dietary restrictions in most grocery stores, and I’d love to offer my own tips and answer questions about making ingredients work. Just leave a comment at the end of the post!

Good luck! And remember: it isn’t about the food but about those you eat with, so if something doesn’t go as planned, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich will always put a smile on someone’s face.

Matt’s Vegan Mushroom Ragù

Adapted from Spring Lamb Ragù (recipe follows) from Dishing Up® Oregon

Makes 4-6 servings

Ingredients

Ragù
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1½ pounds assorted mushrooms (such as Portobello, shiitake, and button), cut into ½-inch chunks
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, split
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and finely diced (about 1½ cups)
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely diced (about 1½ cups)
  • 1 small fennel bulb, finely diced (about 1 cup)
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 5 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1¼ cups dry red wine
  • 3 cups strong vegetable broth
  • ⅓ cup crushed tomatoes
  • ¼ teaspoon liquid smoke
  • ½ tablespoon sugar
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 fresh thyme sprigs
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
Vegan “Cheesy” Topping
  • ¼ cup nutritional yeast
  • ¼ cup walnuts
  • pinch of salt

Directions

  1. In a one-gallon ziplock bag, mix together the mushrooms, flour, salt, and pepper until all the mushrooms are evenly coated with flour.  In a large Dutch oven, warm 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Working in 2 batches, add the mushrooms and cook, turning occasionally, until browned all over, about 10 minutes. Don’t worry if you get a thick coating of browned bits on the bottom of the pan; they’ll add delicious flavor to the final dish.
  2. Remove all of the mushrooms from the pot to a plate, and to the Dutch oven add the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil, the carrots, onion, fennel, and red pepper flakes. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and tomato paste with a wooden spoon and cook until the tomato paste begins to brown, about 3 minutes. Stir in the wine and scrape up the flavorful browned bits from the bottom of the Dutch oven. When all the browned bits have released from the bottom of the Dutch oven, add the cooked mushrooms, along with vegetable broth, crushed tomatoes, liquid smoke, sugar, bay leaves, and thyme sprigs. Bring the mixture to a boil.
  3. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the ragù, covered, for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. After 40 minutes, remove the lid and cook for another 5-10 minutes to allow the sauce to thicken. Discard the bay leaves and thyme sprigs.
  4. Cook one pound of rigatoni according to the directions on the manufacturer’s package. While the pasta is cooking, make the “cheesy” topping: mix nutritional yeast and walnuts with a pinch of salt, place the mixture in a food processor and pulse until it resembles ground parmesan cheese.
  5. When the pasta is finished cooking, drain and place in a large serving bowl. Mix in half of the ragù sauce. To serve, spoon the rigatoni onto a plate, top with another spoonful of ragù, a bit of minced parsley, and “cheesy” topping. Serve immediately.

Spring Lamb Ragù

This shoulder-season recipe from Chef JC Mersmann partners a hearty lamb ragù with a homemade pasta made with spring nettles foraged from the property at Gathering Together Farm. Serve this comforting ragù over the nettle pasta or a noodle of your choice.

Makes 4–6 servings

Ingredients

  • All-purpose flour
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1½ pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into ½-inch chunks
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and finely diced (about 1½ cups)
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely diced (about 1½ cups)
  • 1 small fennel bulb, finely diced (about 1 cup)
  • 2 strips thick-cut bacon, diced into ¼-inch pieces
  • 5 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1¼ cups dry red wine
  • 3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • ⅓ cup crushed tomatoes
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 fresh thyme sprigs
  • Fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish (optional)
  • Grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish (optional)

Directions

  1. Fill a shallow dish with flour and lightly season it with salt and pepper. Dredge the lamb through the flour and set aside. Warm the olive oil in a large lidded pot over medium heat. Add the lamb and cook, turning occasionally, until browned all over, about 10 minutes.
  2. Remove the lamb from the pot and add the carrots, onion, fennel, and bacon. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and tomato paste with a wooden spoon and cook until the tomato paste begins to brown, about 3 minutes. Stir in the wine and scrape up the flavorful browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the chicken broth, crushed tomatoes, bay leaves, thyme, and lamb to the pot. Bring the mixture to a boil.
  3. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the ragù, covered, until the lamb is fork-tender and the sauce has thickened slightly, about 2 hours 30 minutes. Continue to cook the ragù, uncovered, until it reaches the desired thickness, about 15 minutes longer.
  4. Discard the bay leaves and thyme sprigs. Garnish the ragù with the parsley and Parmesan, if desired, and serve immediately.

Spring Lamb Ragù recipe excerpted from Dishing Up® Washington © 2012 by Storey Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.

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