Bean Bolognese (Vegetarian)

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(KERI) When I was in my early twenties, I decided that becoming a vegetarian sounded like an interesting challenge. Amidst the late-night pizza runs, the 2 a.m. trips to Amigos for a loaded nacho with extra beef, I was determined to cut the animal flesh. Cold turkey.

You know what? I did it. Easily. I became a wee bit obsessed, and that was part of the fun. “Pardon me, Waiter Dude. Does the sauce for the pasta contain beef broth?” That was me. I explored, discovered and tested new terrain. And not just with food. I bought Birkenstocks. I listened to Edie Brickell and Tracy Chapman. I took philosophy. I marched in rallies. I became a little granola, ever-so-slightly crunchy.

Here’s what I’m saying, Friends: This ‘go vegetarian’ decision was more than eliminating meat. Little did I know at the time it was to be the impetus of a personal formation. It was about the evolution of a young person. You know, those times when you’re too young to be cynical and unafraid to speak up? No inner monologue, uncalibrated because you just didn’t know any better? Those were the days and amazing days they were. I have such big, fuzzy, fond memories of this time, and I have vegetarianism to thank.

Vegetarian cuisine for me back then was more transactional than anything. I had to eat, so I ate. I loved food, but without much time or resource to get creative. Oh hell, I’ll just say it wasn’t a priority to get creative. I had friends to see and parties to attend!

Five years into my no-meat zone, I broke down…and for what? Filet? Pork tenderloin? Thanksgiving turkey? No, no and no. An Arby’s Roast Beef Sandwich, that’s what. It’s plain embarrassing but true. Damn it was goooooooood. Though I’ve never eaten one since.

Fast forward to present day and wow – the world of vegetarianism has exploded. No longer are bulgur or quinoa considered weird. Thank the veggie Gods for that.

We love meat in my house. We eat it in moderation, interspersed with no-flesh dishes. Summertime, with its bounty of sun-kissed produce coupled with sweaty activities after which the last thing we want to eat is a steak, is when we indulge easily in a vegetarian state of being. But winter, fall and early spring? That’s when we want roasted, braised or stewed flavors. We’ve been in search of divine vegetarian fare that satiates the need for toothy richness.

Guess what happened about three weeks ago? We found THE vegetarian dish. Bean Bolognese.

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There are so many lovelies about this recipe. First, it’s pasta. Who doesn’t love the noodle? Second, it mimics the flavors of bolognese. You start with mirepoix.

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Instead of beef or veal, this version gets its protein from beans: Kidney, cannellini and garbanzo to be exact. Aromatic herbs bring it home.

I was skeptical about one ingredient: butternut squash. Two Bites Kitchen so badly wants to love butternut squash. The name is gorgeous. It looks gorgeous. But…we never seem to find a love connection. For some reason, however, we don’t stop trying. This recipe originally called for the squash to be sauteed with the other veggies. I recalled that the times we’ve been most inclined to butternut was when we’ve roasted it. Okay, let’s do that. We did. It was kitty-cat purfect and added a delicious flavor layer. Sweetness. Oh butternut, Baby. It all comes together easily and deliciously. Slurp.

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Food creates stories. It makes memories. It engages all of the senses and therefore, provokes associations. Vegetarian Keri had such an impact on Today Keri. I think about what challenges Marina might take on as a young adult. Might she become a vegetarian? A vegan? A hippie? A chef? A lawyer? I can’t wait to see that evolution…and the food memories associated with it all.

Bean Bolognese – Adapted from this Bon Appetit recipe

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 large carrot, chopped
1 large celery stalk, chopped
3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley, divided
2 garlic cloves, chopped
3/4 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 3/4 cups 1/2-inch cubes peeled butternut squash
1 28-ounce can Italian-style tomatoes in juice, drained (juice reserved), tomatoes chopped
2/3 cup drained canned cannellini (white) beans
2/3 cup drained canned kidney beans
2/3 cup drained canned garbanzo beans
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup vegetable broth
2 tablespoons whipping cream
8 ounces dried pappardelle
1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese (about 5 ounces), divided

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place cubed squash on baking pan, drizzle about 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil over and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 30 minutes, or until browned roasting coats the cubes, stirring and flipping a few times during the process. Remove from oven and set aside.

Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, celery, 2 tablespoons parsley, garlic, rosemary, thyme, and bay leaf. Sauté until vegetables begin to brown, about 8 – 10 minutes. Add tomato paste; stir 1 minute. Add chopped tomatoes and all beans and roasted squash; stir 1 minute. Add wine and simmer 2 minutes. Mix in broth, cream, and reserved tomato juice. Simmer until sauce thickens, stirring occasionally, about 20 – 30 minutes. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper.

Cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain. Add sauce; toss with tongs over medium heat until coated. Transfer to large bowl. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup cheese and 1 tablespoon parsley. Serve, passing remaining 1 cup cheese.

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