“You eat too healthy,” my chef says. “If you never eat junk food you’ll ruin your immune system and get cancer.”
I try to eat healthy at home. I throw kale into everything and stock cases full of canned beans. My fridge is full of root vegetables, fermented condiments, and organic dairy products. And while I’d never go so far as to ban white flour, sugar, and pasta in my kitchen, there’s a quota.
“I’ll be fine,” I say. We’re drinking beer after our shift, engaging in the mockery that builds a kitchen. “I eat here, after all.”
I have to eat healthy at home, because our work meals are not healthy. Mayo fried rice. Philly cheese steak poutine. Mac and cheese that’s one part cream cheese to two parts velveeta. They’re quick, efficient meals that are meant to replenish the calories burned from eight hours on your feet. I’ve devoured them all.
It often feels that I’m inhabiting two worlds, especially in regards to food. It’s a strength, certainly. I can look at dishes from multiple perspectives. I know how good vegetarian food can be- a fragrant curry, a comforting pot pie, a really good pot of beans. I also know how good an oozing, melty burger can be. Because of this I’m less inclined to be impressed by a dish solely because it’s vegetarian, or because there’s bacon in it. There’s more tricks in my wheelhouse because of this duo identity, and I can apply them in all the places I cook. And I love picking dishes apart and figuring out how they work and then rejiggering them at home.
Like this lentil bolognese. This bolognese is everything that’s right with vegetarian food. That’s a big claim, I understand. But it’s true. It’s earthy and rich and savory, thanks to the long cooking time and the savory ingredients used. It’s hearty enough for a meal at home, and would take a stunning turn at a dinner party. It’s filling, but doesn’t leave you with that burst gut feeling that can happen after a plate of meat sauce. It’s pretty hands off, so you can start it and leave it be. There’s no funky ingredients to hunt down across town and pay twenty dollars for. And it’s fantastic. Aaron put it at mac and cheese level for how good it is. To put that into perspective, there’s nothing that ranks higher than mac and cheese for Aaron.
This is a dish I would feel confident enough to serve to my health-conscious vegetarian friends and burger eating, dorito loving coworkers. It’s that good.
There are two tricks to this sauce. The first is to make sure that all the vegetables are cut quite small- around the size of a lentil. That allows more surface area for flavor to develop, and makes sure the vegetables are integrated in the sauce. The second is to make sure it cooks low and slow, to get tender lentils and a deeply flavored sauce. I used crimini mushrooms because they were cheap at my local grocery store. Button mushrooms would work as well, I would just cook them a little longer.
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 medium carrot, finely diced
1 medium celery stalk, finely diced
8 ounces crimini mushrooms, finely diced (you can use the stems as well)
1 cup earthy red wine (I used an Argentinian malbec)
3 cups water
1 twenty-eight ounce can whole tomatoes, juices retained and tomatoes crushed
1 cup beluga lentils
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 cup whole milk
1 pound fettuccini, for serving
Pecorino romano, for serving
In a medium saucepan, warm together the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, and celery, toss in the oil and butter, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened and the onions translucent, about 10 minutes.
Add in the mushrooms and season again with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are soft and have started to give off some juice. Add in the red wine and stir well to bring any brown bits off the bottom of the pan. These are very flavorful, so get all you can. Add in the water, tomatoes and juice, lentil, bay leaf, and nutmeg. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Let the sauce simmer away, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are almost tender and the water is mostly cooked away. This will take at least an hour, possibly two.
Once the water is cooked away add the milk and stir well. Let the milk reduce in the sauce until it is almost gone. Taste to make sure the lentils are tender, and that the seasoning is correct. If the lentils are not at the desired state of tenderness, add more water, a little at a time, and cook out. If the seasoning is not correct, adjust the salt, pepper, or nutmeg to desired state. Remove the bay leaf.
Cook the fettuccini according to package directions.
To serve, top the fettuccini with the lentil sauce. Sprinkle with grated pecornio romano.