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8 & $20: No-Meat Pasta Bolognese

This mushroom ragù will make you forget you ever wanted meat in your pasta sauce
Photo by: Esther Mobley
The shape of rigatoni mezze pasta is perfect for holding generous scoops of mushrooms.

Esther Mobley
Posted: April 14, 2015

Eight ingredients, plus pantry staples. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a feast for family or friends. That's the philosophy behind our "8 & $20" feature. We hope it adds pleasure to your table.

A few weeks ago, it was chilly, I was hungry and I was craving some thick, meaty pasta Bolognese. “Let’s make spag bol tonight,” I texted a friend, expecting her to reply, “Funny you should mention it, I just bought a big hunk of aged Parmesan. Be there in 20!”

Instead, I got a devastating response: “I gave up red meat for Lent, remember?" But my friend said she had a better idea—a meatless but exceedingly hearty mushroom ragù. I was hungry enough to give it a shot.

This pasta turned out to be tastier than I could have ever imagined. It takes about an hour to make, but most of that is downtime. While the sauce simmered, we sipped wine and whetted our appetites with bites of the aforementioned Parmesan.

The core of this dish is the mushrooms’ warm and satisfying umami flavor. Get creative with your mushroom purchases, and feel free to mix and match—the funkier the better. I love shiitakes, and they’re perfect in this recipe; just make sure you chop off their tough stems. If only I had found some gnarly hen of the wood (maitake) mushrooms, I would have been thrilled to throw those in, too.

Your choice of pasta is also flexible, though I liked the rigatoni mezze for its ability to scoop up lots of sauce in each small noodle.

When it came to a wine pairing, my friend and I once again clashed: I thought a white wine would be perfect with the creamy sauce, while she saw it with red.

We opened three bottles: a spicy Picpoul-Roussanne white blend from the Languedoc region of France and two Italian reds—an earthy Barbera d’Asti and a smoky Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

After tasting the white I was certain my instinct had been correct. On its own, the Languedoc blanc was very pretty, showing notes of melon and peach, with delicate floral tones and a savory touch at the end. The pasta sauce amplified the savory aspects in the wine, bringing out an herbal side and extending the spice on the finish.

This particular Barbera—light, chewy and marked by a potpourri character—was definitely out of the running. The dish turned it unpleasantly bitter.

The Montepulciano had a bit more body. Its concentrated black currant flavor was balanced by delicate dried floral notes and a savory hit of black olive. When we drank it with the food, it sang. Its deep fruit flavors persisted, while the mushrooms highlighted the wine’s earthy quality. The dish made the wine taste a little creamier, while the wine’s tannins were a welcome counterpoint to the dish’s richness. We couldn’t stop taking sips with each bite of pasta.

“You win,” I conceded to my friend.

No-Meat Bolognese (Mushroom Ragù)

Pair with a spicy, fruity Italian red, such as Carletto Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2013 (87 points, $10), or a floral white from Southern France, such as Hecht & Bannier Languedoc White 2013 (89 points, $16).

Total time: 1 hour

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Approximate food cost: $25

  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, diced
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 pound mushrooms (such as shiitake, cremini and portobello), chopped, stems removed
  • 1/2 cup dry Marsala wine
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1 pound pasta, such as rigatoni mezze
  • Fresh herbs, such as basil and parsley (optional)

1. Set a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion, garlic and olive oil. Cook until onions are wilted, about 5 minutes.

2. Combine the mushrooms and add to pot. They will release some liquid; cook until they’re tender and the liquid has dissipated, about 4 minutes.

3. Take the pot off the burner. Add Marsala, stir and return to the stove for about 5 minutes.

4. Add chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes until liquid is mostly evaporated.

5. While sauce is cooking, boil water in a separate pot. Add pasta; cook until tender. Drain.

6. Add heavy cream, 1/2 cup cheese and herbs, if using. Stir, then remove from heat. Pour over pasta and garnish with remaining cheese. Serves 4.

Lucy L Hey
ballwin, mo —  April 14, 2015 6:31pm ET
Great idea for the meatless Bolognese, especially with the limited ingredient list. With a few more ingredients, you can add additional punch to the final results namely, a little carrot and fresh fennel diced and sautéed with the onion, browning a tablespoon of tomato paste and finally a sprinkle of dried fennel seeds -- adds a meaty-sausage-like quality to the all veg sauce.
Esther Mobley
New York, NY —  April 14, 2015 10:56pm ET
Great idea, Lucy. I'm going to try that!
Paolo Monge
Italy —  April 15, 2015 12:59pm ET
Sounds good!

One interpretation from Italy: instead of pouring the sauce over the pasta, what about doing the opposite, and add the pasta to the sauce in the pan, and stir very gently for 1 minute or so before removing from the burner?

In this case the pasta has to be kept a little undercooked so that the right cooking point is reached after stirring with the sauce. Also, part of the herbs has to be added as last thing before serving, in order to get a better look

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