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I am making a vegetarian pasta alla genovese. The sauce is made by first browning sofrito and tough meats, then braising for several hours with an abundance of onions until those onions carmelize.

The flavor of the sauce comes from both the carmelization of the carbohydrates of the onions and the Maillard reaction of the meat proteins.

I am making it vegetarian, and I wondered what protein sources besides 'meat-alternatives' I might be able to brown for the sauce. I'm avoiding those because 1) I prefer to cook with whole foods and 2) the options available to me bring unwanted flavors or textures to this particular dishm

Could I, for example, use browned mozzarella as a source for the same 'roasted' flavors in the original dish? Would a sufficient amount of browned butter, in place of olive oil, work in the dish without overcooking?

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  • What I tried and how it contributed to the sauce: Brown butter: added great roasted and animal fat flavors. Pine nuts: roasted well, should have used even more. Browned mozzarella: contributed a toasted flavor and contributed a meat-like "bite" to the dish, but was slightly rubbery and tasteless after 6 hours of cooking. Tomato paste: normally wouldn't use it in the recipe, but it definitely added a part of the missing savoriness. Overall, I found the dish nearly candy-sweet when compared to the more balanced original. I may compensate in future with more vegetable mass and even more butter.
    – errt
    Jun 26, 2023 at 8:44

2 Answers 2

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First, as a non-meat-eater myself, let me say that I would not choose Pasta Alla Genovese as a recipe to make vegetarian; it is very beef-centric. As such, I've never done this myself. That said:

You're going to need to separate the "browning" from the "protein" portions of the dish. There are no simple vegetarian proteins that brown well; even the complex, artificial meats only brown so-so.

Browning: I would start with something similar to the Serious Eats recipe, which has a lot of onions and a lot of vegetables. I would cut the vegetables into larger pieces, and brown them thoroughly in butter (instead of olive oil); get the onions nice and dark brown. Increase the quantity of tomato paste and fry it with the browned vegetables before adding the wine. Also, consider adding some crimini mushrooms to the vegetables.

Protein: your best bet here is going to be beans. They're the only simple veggie protein that cooks for long periods, in order to make the stew more ragu-like. This would mean adding a pound or so of presoaked beans, and then covering them in dark vegetable stock. Large mushrooms (like portabellas) would have a better texture, but would cook for a much shorter time, and make the dish much more mushroomy.

Good luck!

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    "no simple vegetarian proteins that brown well". I'm not sure how well they'd work here, but toasted nuts add a lot to some dishes. As we're on pasta, a simple meal I make is to brown cashews, pine nuts & pumpkin seeds (the latter need a lid as they pop and jump out of the pan) in plenty of olive oil, add garlic, herbs, maybe chilli flakes, maybe a tiny bit of tomato. Getting a nice even deep golden colour is definitely optimal for flavour. Now I want to try adding caramelised onions & some of the juice from making them (I keep both in my freezer). Texture still wouldn't match genovese though.
    – Chris H
    Jun 18, 2023 at 7:24
  • Huh, interesting recipe.
    – FuzzyChef
    Jun 18, 2023 at 19:18
  • It's best when I've got plenty of fresh home grown basil. I had a (cold) pasta salad in a cafe that was vaguely similar and used it as a base to experiment when I needed a quick store-cupboard dinner
    – Chris H
    Jun 19, 2023 at 6:58
  • Re: beans, I did not use them in this batch because I thought they were too low-protein to meaningfully replace the beef. I do think, after some reflection, that deep frying them might be an option. I did not add mushrooms, and I'm somewhat opposed to the idea of mushrooms in the dish, but I want to play with it some more and might mess around with them. I'm writing a comment as an update to my post to comment on what I did end up going with. I might revisit this in a month if I have a bunch of onions again.
    – errt
    Jun 26, 2023 at 8:34
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    And re: nuts, I did think to add in some pine nuts! I should have added more, and some cashews, too! I make a very similar pasta/nut dish, similar to the recipe at ~5:00 in this Italia Squisita video m.youtube.com/watch?v=BYUgVoCwgT8
    – errt
    Jun 26, 2023 at 8:53
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I've seen several brown-able and browning-flavor foodstuffs that aren't meat. While some are unexpected and some are associated with meat, all of these, afaik, are available w/o animal content.

  • worcestershire sauce
  • gravy browning
  • liquid smoke
  • fake bacon bits, like bacos
  • sausage casings (veggie friend's secret, shh)
  • toasted garlic, onions, and shallots
  • falafel

Consider as well breading we already brown via fry/sauté:

  • breadcrumbs
  • batter (chunks, strips or balls)
  • grape nuts (another secret)
  • cornmeal
  • peanuts
  • marmite
  • melba toast

There's also a few umami-adding ingredients that will provide some of the same notes as browned meat:

  • butter
  • mushroom powder
  • sushi nori
  • parmesan
  • Reggiano rinds (use like Bay Leaves)
  • soy sause
  • miso

Lastly, you need pasta anyway, and pasta, especially orzo/vermicelli can be toasted like rice-a-roni instructs to add a richer flavor.

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  • Careful with Worcester sauce. As standard it contains anchovy so isn't vegetarian. You'd need to track down a fish-free version (they exist but are hard to find) for veggie cooking
    – Chris H
    Jun 22, 2023 at 11:41
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    Your comment reminded me I have some Marmite in the cupboard that would have been great in the sauce! Definitely for next time. I think toasting the pasta is also a great suggestion and one I'll try with my leftover sauce. I forgot to mention in an above comment that I boiled a Parmigiano rind with the sauce and heaped quite a bit of Parmigiano on top when serving -- definitely improved the balance of the meal. I think I'm still chasing a few flavor notes and trying to balance overwhelming sweetness of the sauce, but I'm making progress.
    – errt
    Jun 26, 2023 at 8:50
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    Sausage casings are made from animal intestine.
    – FuzzyChef
    Jun 26, 2023 at 17:47
  • I thought of parm rinds a few days after posting (great minds). As a yank i've not had marmite, but we do have it in "fancy" food stores around here; I'll add both, thanks. ChrisH and @FuzzyChef: there's certainly non-animal versions widely available. Look for a U in a circle (orthodox union kosher for passover) or just check the ingredient list.
    – dandavis
    Jun 26, 2023 at 19:04
  • In addition to Worcester sauce, also be careful that real parmesan cheese is not vegetarian either as it is made with rennet (enzymes sourced from the stomachs of cows as a side product from the butchering process). You can make the same, equally delicious cheese with synthetic rennet (derived from microbes) but then it isn't officially allowed to be called parmesan (but might be called something like "parmesan-style cheese"). Jun 28, 2023 at 10:05

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