I created this vegetarian mushroom bolognese recipe in partnership with SmartMade™. Thanks as always for supporting the brands that make this site, and my Italian grandma ways, possible.
When I applied to a study abroad program in Rome for my junior year of college there were several factors to my decision. The first 25 percent was because it was one of the few programs that would contribute credits to my weird “urban studies” major. The remaining 75 percent was divided evenly between pizza, pasta and prosciutto.
While I thoroughly enjoyed my time in class, which was really just walking tours of the city, it was obviously the food education that’s stuck with me more than any factoid about Nero or his baths. But it wasn’t necessarily the type of schooling I expected. Before leaving for Italy, I imagined my meals would be spent luxuriously enjoying antipasti platters of cured meats and hand-stretched Buffalo mozzarella at local restaurants, followed by courses of pappardelle with lamb ragu and rosemary-scented steaks.
Then I got to Europe and discovered how far my allowance would take me in Euros. And it was not to restaurants with 3-course meals. Or, really, restaurants at all.
In Rome, I really cut my teeth in the small kitchen. And by making meals that stretched my budget, I inadvertently gained an education in how to cook a lot of humble plant-based foods. Eggplant caponata got slathered on toast. White beans were folded into salads. And mushrooms got simmered down into a thick, rich sugo that rivaled the fanciest restaurant’s lamb ragu (or so I suspected).
This type of resourceful, veg-packed peasant food was actually pretty close to the Roman cuisine I didn’t get to sample quite as frequently out in the city. And in many ways, it’s similar to how I now go about juggling the health piece of my kitchen contingency plan.
So when I was challenged by SmartMade™, a new line of frozen meals, to come up with a “smart swap” for one of my favorite dishes, the mushroom Bolognese recipe that I pioneered from a small walk-up near Campo de Fiori was the first thing that came to mind.
After I got home from Rome, my Italian cooking education continued stateside via hours upon hours of the Food Network. Which is how I learned the brilliant mirepoix trick in this recipe. When you pulse the onions, carrots and celery in a food processor it a) saves you a lot of time and effort, b) cooks much faster, and c) releases the veggie’s sugary juices, creating more caramelization in the pan, and more flavor for your sauce when you scrape it up.
This technique is great for meat sauces. But it’s even more essential for a flavorful vegetarian Bolognese, which cooks up in a fifth of the time. It also melts away into a thick paste that adds body to the mushrooms.
You can easily use this smart swap for topping gluten-free pasta. But I love it ladled over a creamy bowl of polenta, which is made rich and buttery by using only full fat coconut milk. Both parts can be made ahead of time and reheated with a few splashes of water or stock to loosen them. Or, alternatively, instead of creamy soft polenta, you can turn the polenta into cakes. Just transfer the cooked polenta to a 9×13 baking dish and chill, covered, until firm, about 2 hours. Cut into squares or wedges and bake at 425 degrees on a parchment-lined cookie sheet until crispy, about 40 minutes.
This mushroom Bolognese recipe is perfect for a casual weeknight meal (especially during a blizzard!!), or for when you’re watching your wallet or your waistline, without having to compromise any flavor. And eating it will hopefully take you with me back to Rome, even if you’ve never been there.
From one healthy hedonist, to another,
Vegan Coconut Polenta with Harissa Mushroom Bolognese
- For the bolognese:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil plus more for serving
- 1 large onion finely chopped or pulsed in a food processor
- 2 medium carrots finely chopped or pulsed in a food processor
- 2 celery stalks finely chopped or pulsed in a food processor
- 16 ounces mixed mushrooms cremini, Portobello, shitake, about 4 cups, stems removed and diced
- 4 medium cloves garlic minced
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- Sea salt
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- One 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes see note
- 2 tablespoons harissa
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped flat leaf parsley optional, for serving
- For the polenta:
- Two 14.5-ounce can full fat coconut milk
- 1 quart vegetable stock or water
- 1 1/2 cups polenta
- 1 tablespoon ghee, grass-fed butter or coconut oil
- In a large skillet or saucepan, heat the oil. Over medium-high heat, sauté the onions, carrots and celery until soft and beginning to caramelize, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms, garlic, cumin and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon or spatula, until the mushrooms have released their moisture and softened, about 7 minutes more.
- Pour in the red wine, scrapping up any brown bits that may have formed on the bottom of the pan. Once the liquid has cooked off, stir in the tomatoes, harissa and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Simmer on medium-low heat until the tomatoes have lost their acidity and reduced by half, 10 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of water or vegetable stock to loosen the sauce if it seems dry. Set aside.
- Meanwhile, while the mushroom Bolognese is simmering, make the polenta: bring the coconut milk and stock or water to a boil in a large Dutch oven or stockpot. Slowing pour in the polenta while whisking. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring frequently, until the corn meal has lost its gritty bite and the polenta has thickened to the point of holding its shape on a plate, 15 to 20 minutes depending on the coarseness of the polenta. Season with 1 teaspoon sea salt and the ghee, butter or coconut oil, if using.
- Spoon the polenta into bowls and top with a generous heap of mushroom Bolognese sauce. Drizzle with olive oil, garnish with chopped parsley, and serve hot.
- If you only have diced, that’s fine! If using whole, just pulse them in a food processor before using.
- If the mushrooms are very dirty, use a damp cloth to wipe off the caps. Never wash them as they will absorb the water and become tough and rubbery. Worst comes to worst, a little dirt is not going to kill you.
This recipe was created in partnership with SmartMade™. As always, all opinions are my own. Thank you for supporting the brands that make this site and my Italian culinary escapades possible!!
SmartMade wants to hear from you as they create new meals. If you like this smart swap and would like to see a similar meal in your freezer aisle, pin this post to your Pinterest board. The recipe with the most love from YOU will be used as inspiration in a future meal!