Hear ye, hear ye! This is not – I repeat not – a vegetarian version of meat sauce.
Don’t let the title of the recipe fool you into thinking this traditionally-beefy Bolognese sauce is made sans meat. Ground beef is fully present in this production, it just happens to get scooted over from center stage a bit to give the veggies a chance to shine.
And if you think like me, you know that all of the above only means one thing:
We don’t need to serve a salad with dinner!
I mean, to each his own, so feel free to enjoy every bite of this Bolognese alongside a garlicky Caesar salad if that’s your thing. But for me, when I can squeeze a good amount of veggies into the main course, that means one less healthy side is required, which ultimately means less dishes too.
If that doesn’t make this one-hour dinner appealing, I don’t know what will.
Well, other than the fact it’s also an opportunity for enjoying garlic bread. It’s a tough job, to be a leading member of the clean plate club. But someone has to swipe up every last drop of sauce with a crusty baguette.
If you clicked on this recipe and were really stoked on the idea of subbing the meat in traditional meat sauce for meaty eggplant, don’t worry. No one’s going to come into your kitchen and dump any beef into your sauce.
That’d be weird.
Skip the meat and double the eggplant for a vegetarian version of this dish. Or go one step further and sub a vegan protein in for the meat and leave out the parmesan for a fully vegan meal.
As for me, I’m keeping the meat.
The main reason is because I adore the fatty flavor it leaves in the pan just before the veggies take a dip. Eggplant soaks up liquid like a sponge, so you better believe that as soon as it hits that rendered beef juice, it’s game on in flavor town.
If you really want to lean in to the classic Bolognese, a combination of beef and pork is commonly used. Today, we’re keeping things on the simple side.
Carrots are a quintessential Bolognese sauce ingredient celebrated for adding a touch of sweetness, which cuts through the fat of the sumptuous sauce. This recipe calls on earthy eggplant and zucchini for even more flavor and texture. The veggies bring substance to the sauce, not to mention some nutritional added benefits. Check out zucchini’s rap sheet here.
As the eggplant stews during simmertime (my favorite season), the cubes become sweet, rich flavor nuggets that are weaved into every bite. Loads of fragrant basil bring the fresh vegetal notes full circle, and salty parmesan adds sharpness.
Pasta shape and size is typically personal preference, but I’m begging you to choose rigatoni for this meal. Larger than penne, these wide-barreled noodles are slightly curved and act as little lifeboats for your eggplant Bolognese.
As for their exterior ridges? Simply an additional space where the sauce lives rent-free, for your enjoyment!
I don’t know anything about real estate, but I’ll appraise this Bolognese if you don’t have the time…Print
Boost the flavor and texture of traditional Bolognese with our veg-heavy version packed with tender goodies like eggplant and zucchini.
- 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 pound ground beef (preferably 80/20)
- 2 teaspoons coarse salt, divided, plus more to taste
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided, plus more to taste
- 1 large eggplant (about 1 pound), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 2 cups chopped yellow onion (about 1 medium)
- 1 cup peeled and diced carrot (about 2 medium)
- 1 cup diced zucchini (about 1 medium)
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano, or 1 tablespoon fresh
- 3 large cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
- 1 pound rigatoni
- 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, divided, plus more for serving
- 1/2 cup packed fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped, plus more for garnish
- In a large heavy-bottomed pot, add 2 tablespoons of the oil and warm it up over medium-high heat. Add the ground beef and season with 1 teaspoon of the salt and 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper. Breaking up the meat with a spoon, saute until browned, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the beef from the pan and set it aside.
- Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil to the pot and reduce the heat to medium. Add the eggplant, onion, carrot, and zucchini, and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and the oregano. Saute, stirring occasionally, until the veggies have softened and taken on some color, about 3 minutes.
- Stir in the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Stir in the tomato paste to coat the veggies and cook for an additional minute. Deglaze the pot with the canned tomatoes, scraping the bottom to release any bits that are stuck.
- Return the beef to the pot, and stir in the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring the sauce to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, and cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing burns, for about 30 minutes or until the sauce has thickened.
- While the sauce is simmering, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the rigatoni according to package instructions, reserving 1 cup of the starchy cooking water before draining.
- Add the cooked pasta, 1/4 cup of the parmesan, and the basil to the pot with the sauce and toss, slowly adding the reserved starchy cooking water a few tablespoons at a time to help the sauce cling to the noodles. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper.
- Divide among plates, garnish with grated parmesan and basil, and serve with extra parmesan alongside.
- Prep Time: 20 minutes
- Cook Time: 40 minutes
- Category: Pasta
- Cuisine: Italian
Keywords: rigatoni, pasta, eggplant, bolognese
Cooking By the Numbers…
Step 1 – Gather, Prep, and Measure Ingredients
If you can only find smaller eggplant that weigh about 5 ounces each, you’ll want to use 3 small ones in place of the large eggplant called for in this recipe.
Trim the ends off the eggplant, and slice it lengthwise into 1/2-inch slabs. Stack the slabs on top of each other, slice lengthwise into 1/2-inch-wide strips, and then cut those into 1/2-inch cubes.
Step 2 –Brown the Beef
Heat a large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons of the oil. Let it warm up.
Add the ground beef, season with 1 teaspoon of the salt and 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper, and cook until it’s browned, making sure to break up the meat with a spoon so it cooks evenly. This will take about 5 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon so you can keep the fat in the pan for cooking the veggies, set the ground beef aside on a plate.
Step 3 – Cook the Veggies
Lower the heat to medium and add the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil to the pan. This may seem like a lot of fat, but the veggies – particularly the eggplant – will soak it up quickly. Give the oil a few minutes to heat up.
Add the eggplant, onion, carrot, and zucchini, and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and the oregano. Stirring occasionally to make sure everything is cooking evenly, saute until the veggies have taken on a little color and are softened, for about 3 minutes.
Step 4 – Add the Aromatics and Tomatoes
Stir in the garlic, and cook for about 30 seconds or until it’s fragrant. Don’t allow the garlic to burn.
Stir in the tomato paste so it coats the veggies and heats through, to concentrate the natural sugars that it contains, for about 1 minute.
White wine (though you could use red) and cream or milk are common ingredients in an American-style Bolognese, so feel free to use a quarter to half a cup of wine to deglaze the pan in this step if you like, before adding the canned tomatoes. About 1/3 cup of milk or cream can be stirred in just before serving if you opt to use that, for a richer sauce.
Deglaze the pan with the crushed and diced tomatoes, scraping the bottom to release any brown bits that are stuck. Stir the beef back into the sauce.
Step 5 – Simmer the Sauce and Cook the Rigatoni
Season the sauce with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring the sauce to a boil, with a tilted lid on top if you need it, to prevent any unexpected splatters.
Cover the sauce with the lid, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer until the sauce has thickened, stirring occasionally to make sure the bottom isn’t burning. This took about 30 minutes for me.
While the sauce is simmering, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the rigatoni according to package instructions. Before draining in a colander, reserve about 1 cup of the starchy cooking water and set it aside. This will be used to help the sauce cling to the noodles.
Step 6 – Toss the Rigatoni and Sauce, Garnish, and Serve
Using either the pasta pot as your vessel or the pan containing the sauce, depending on its size, toss the cooked pasta, 1/4 cup of the parmesan, and the basil together.
Add the reserved starchy cooking water a few tablespoons at a time while you toss, to help everything come together. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper if necessary.
Divide the pasta among plates, making sure you’re generous with the sauce and spooning a little extra over the top of each serving. Garnish with the remaining parmesan and basil, and serve with extra grated parmesan alongside.
Starchy Water Saves the Day
If you’ve ever wondered why so many recipes call for reserving the pasta cooking water, here’s the deal:
The starchy water helps the sauce cloak the noodles in a way that it can’t really do by itself. Sure, you can toss pasta and sauce together and end up with a great meal. But you’re not doing the noods as much justice without the added thickener, and you’re missing out on a silky richness only starchy cooking water can bring.
Between the pound of pasta, pound of meat, and boatload of veggies, this dish can definitely feed a small crowd. What to do with all those leftovers?
Dump them into an oven-friendly casserole dish, toss with some shredded mozzarella, dot with ricotta, and poof! You just gave your eggplant Bolognese a baked ziti-esque makeover.
How will you top your Bolognese before serving? Share your great ideas in the comments below! And don’t forget to give this recipe a five-star rating if you loved it.
If you’re an eggplant enthusiast and agree that this humble vegetable is often overlooked, you’ll love these recipes that give the tasty nightshade veg a starring role:
- Grilled Eggplant Rollatini with Lemony Herbed Ricotta
- Baba Ghanoush Hummus
- Marinara Stuffed Roasted Eggplant
Photos by Fanny Slater, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published by Jennifer Swartvagher on July 21, 2015. Last updated on April 21, 2022.
Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.
About Fanny Slater
Fanny Slater is a home-taught food enthusiast based in Wilmington, North Carolina who won the “Rachael Ray Show” Great American Cookbook Competition in 2014, and published her cookbook “Orange, Lavender & Figs” in 2016. Fanny is a food and beverage writer, recipe developer, and social media influencer. She was a co-host on the Food Network series “Kitchen Sink,” was featured on Cooking Channel’s longtime popular series “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and continues to appear regularly on the “Rachael Ray Show.”