I'm a sucker for a hearty ragù, and this particular recipe for meaty red wine mushroom ragù with pappardelle is one of my ultimate comfort foods. It's like the chunky knit scarf of pasta dishes, something to reach for to keep the chill of a grey day at bay. I actually developed a non-meatless version of this several years ago for a magazine, but I've since adapted it to make it more inclusive of different diets. To me, a recipe for comfort food is even better when it welcomes everybody to the table.
A pinch of something "unexpected" is what makes this mushroom ragù so comforting and familiar.
The magic of this recipe lies with an elegant touch of... cinnamon! Whenever I've described the ragù to people in the past, there's always a beat of hesitation after hearing "cinnamon." Most people immediately think "sweet," because they associate the spice with apple pies or pumpkin spice lattes. And that's understandable--it can be hard not to think "sticky buns" when you pop open the spice jar. But, I like to remind people that cinnamon makes appearances in savory dishes all over the globe. Think North African tagines, Vietnamese pho broths, Mexican moles, and Chinese five spice. Italy, too, has a delicious tradition of using warming spices in savory dishes.
Let's talk about cinnamon: It's for more than just apple pie!
Cinnamon is warming, with a spiciness that's more akin to ginger than it is to chilies. That zippy heat feels bright, rather than deep and moody like black pepper. It has an earthy character that is distinctly woodsy--which makes sense, considering that cinnamon is from the bark of a tree.
There are many different types of cinnamon, and each type of can be sold under different names.
Burlap & Barrel's Royal Cinnamon is the same plant as Vietnamese cinnamon. Cinnamon Verum is Ceylon Cinnamon is Peni Miris Cinnamon. Cassia is a different plant than all of those, but still labeled as cinnamon. Yes--it can be confusing. But frankly, they all speak the same language.
Case and point: top-notch spice purveyors like Curio Spice, Diaspora Co. and Burlap & Barrel all use some combination of the same taste descriptions, regardless of varietal. They all reach for: Citrusy, brown butter, honey, thyme, orange peel, and whiskey.
(None of the above links are affiliate links, but I do personally recommend all three of those companies and their spices.)
From salumi to tortellini, cinnamon is right at home in savory Italian cooking.
There is a spice blend typical of the Tuscan country side referred to as droghe-- literally, "drugs." Emiko Davies, a, Italy-based food writer and cookbook, describes it as, "A heady mix of spices and an unlikely pairing of ingredients." (Get a taste for its history and use here.) It's a mix of warming flavors like cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and herbacious notes like coriander and juniper. "Le spezie Toscane" were (and still are) used to flavor gamey meats like wild boar and rabbit. You'll also find it in cured sausages like sopressata. Cinnamon, along with these other warm and woodsy flavors, both subdues some of the gaminess of meat and enhances the natural earthiness.
Even though there is no gamey boar or rabbit in this meaty mushroom ragù, cinnamon still plays an important role in deepening flavors and drawing out complexity.
Mushrooms, which, can range from nutty to deeply earthy, have a wild savoriness that pairs well with cinnamon's assertive aroma. The bright, zippy woodsiness of cinnamon brings a warmth and subtle sweetness. It both mellows and invigorates the earthy-savory mushroom flavor, bringing it closer to what we might describe as "meaty."
The remaining core ingredients in this ragù all have familiar sweetness under their savoriness. Onion and garlic have a sweetness that is drawn out as they caramelize. Tomatoes cook down and develop rich umami, but as they do their natural sugars deepen, just like the onions and garlic. The fennel in Italian sausage (even vegan versions), picks up on these sweet notes in a bright, almost floral way. Cinnamon captures those sweet tones and binds them all together with its warmth.
If you're looking for an easy, sweet way to round out your meal, try a free-form crostata using an Italian pastry called pasta frolla. It's quick and simple to make, and incredibly easy to work with! A decadent plum crostata would be a sublime pairing with this meaty ragù, but any in-season fruit will do!
Notes for Success:
While this is an easy ragù to whip up, there are a few hints worth sharing, to make sure you have the best meal (and cooking experience!) possible.
If you're short on time, a food processor will make quick work of those mushrooms.
Cleaning, trimming, and chopping a pound of mushrooms can be a tedious task. If you have the patience, just go to town with your knife. But, if you want to save an extra 5-10 minutes, just clean off any dirt, trim the tough stems, and pulse them in your food processor until finely chopped. If you're using portobello, chunk them up roughly before tossing into the machine. Ending up with a few larger pieces is fine (they will shrink with cooking), but don't go too small or you'll miss out on the meaty texture.
Try to use a variety of mushrooms.
Flavor-wise, white button, brown baby bella, cremini and portobello are pretty much interchangeable, so using some of each doesn't count as "variety." Portobello are easier to clean and prep, thanks to their size, and they usually have a more complex flavor than their smaller cousins. For me, shiitakes are a must-- they have a savoriness that I find less earthy and more meaty. Both portobellos and shiitakes are consistently easy to find in grocery stores, which is why I recommend them. If you are lucky enough to get oyster, lions head, etc, definitely add them to the mix.
Thoughts on "Vegan Sausage"...
To be honest, this ragù does not need fake sausage. Doubling the mushrooms and adding some crushed fennel seed would give you a very, very similar (and no less delicious) effect. My use of vegan sausage here is for convenience and nostalgia. It adds texture and acts as a vehicle for the surrounding sauce with minimal effort. Because it's "sausage," it comes already full of its own herbs and spices, like fennel, so I don't have to add those flavors separately. It's a quick and easy way to include friends and family who don't eat pork. And, the textures and flavors directly tap into nostalgic memories of cozy meals and clinking glasses, both at home and in the warmly lit restaurants here and abroad. You can omit it in favor of more mushrooms or some other, less processed, meat alternative. Or you can just use real meat. Follow your bliss.
Recipe: Meaty Red Wine Mushroom Ragu with Pappardelle
- Olive oil
- 12 ounces vegan sausage, usually 1 package, Non-veg Option: sweet Italian pork sausage
- 3 tablespoons butter, divided, Vegan Option: sub vegan butter
- 5 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 pound mixed mushrooms, cleaned and tough stems removed, finely chopped, Ideally a blend of shiitake and portobello; See Notes
- ½ large yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 1 cup dry red wine
- 14½ ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 1½ cups vegetable or mushroom broth
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 12 ounces pappardelle or tagliatelle pasta, Vegan Option: Eggless pappardelle or other sturdy shape like rigatoni or orecchiette
- Step 1In a large stainless steel skillet (ideally 12-inches) over medium heat, add a drizzle of olive oil. When the oil is shimmering, add the vegan sausage. Cook, occasionally stirring and breaking the sausage into small pieces. After about 10 to 15 minutes, your vegan sausage should be fully cooked, with some light browning. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.
- Step 2In the same skillet, combine 2 tablespoons butter and garlic over medium heat. Cook until the butter has melted and the garlic is sizzling. Stir in the mushrooms, onion, and ½ teaspoon salt, and increase to medium-high. Cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms have released their liquid, the onion has softened, and small bits of mushroom begin to stick to the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes. Return the vegan sausage to the pan.
- Step 3Stir in the wine. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring often and scraping up any bits stuck to the pan, until the wine has almost completely reduced, about 5 minutes. Add the canned tomatoes, broth, cinnamon, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¾ teaspoon black pepper. Bring to a heavy simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes the liquid will look obviously thickened and begin to leave a brief trail when a spoon is drawn through. Stir constantly for another 3 to 5 minutes, until the sauce is very thick, the liquid no longer pools on the surface, and the trail behind a spoon stays for at least 5 seconds. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Cover and set aside to keep warm.
- Step 4While the sauce simmers, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Cook your pasta according to package instructions. NOTE: Pasta is usually perfectly cooked 1 to 2 minutes before the time indicated on the package, and will continue to cook gently as it gets tossed with the sauce.When your pasta is cooked, reserve about ½ cup of the pasta water, then drain and return your pasta to the pot. Add the sauce, 2 tablespoons of the pasta water, and the remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Toss until the butter is melted and the pasta is well-coated.