Meatless “Sweet Italian Sausage” Eggplant Ragu
Sweet Italian sausage is one of my absolute faves. I think it’s actually my #1 fave sausage out there. There’s something about the hearty, fatty meat, paired with rich spices and sweet, aromatic fennel seed that makes all of my senses buzz and tingle. Because fatty processed meats aren’t the *best* for you, we tend to eat sausage every once in a while. When we do, it’s always a treat. But, the other day I was daydreaming… what if I could have this sweet Italian sausage ~*feeling*~ without eating the processed meat? I’m all for the occasional sausage, but I want these flavors more than just “on occasion.” And that’s how I came up with this ragu. I’m a meat lover, so I hope you can trust my judgement when I provide meatless recipes that I think are equivalent (well, probably more like very close seconds) to the real deal.
I have made this sauce before with sweet Italian sausage, so the only swap out happening here is the eggplant, which I’m seasoning with the same spices that go into making the sausage. Eggplants are fantastic meat substitutes because they can soak up tons of flavor when marinated or seasoned appropriately. Huge newly converted eggplant fan over here!!!
All in all, this sauce is sweet, a little tangy (cue the red wine vinegar,) fragrant with garlic and onion, and savory. Of course we also have those strong fennel seeds shining through to bring us that famous sweet Italian sausage flavor.
Aside from pasta, what can I serve this ragu with?
Of course, any kind of pasta works well. But, thinking outside of the box a little bit… try it on some broccoli steaks…on top of a pizza crust…layer it in some lasagna…put it on some chicken or lamb… dollop it on some white fish. It doesn’t just have to be pasta. The same goes for all sauces we make.
What if I want to make more than 2 servings?
As we only have a small family of two, most of my recipes yield 2 dishes. However, if you want to make this a meal for 4-6 people, just double everything. You will most likely have some sauce leftover, but I would rather you make too much than not enough!
Meatless “Sweet Italian Sausage” Eggplant Ragu
- 1 large white onion sliced
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter optional but delicious, if you're not vegan and you have butter, I highly recommend
- 2 cups water to have on hand to deglaze the pan to caramelize onions
- Salt have some on hand to season throughout the recipe
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 3 1/2 cups finely chopped eggplant
- 1/3 cup red wine vinegar can sub for red wine
- 1 tsp balsamic vinegar optional, can do all red wine vinegar
- 2 tsp fennel seed coarsely chopped
- 1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tbsp garlic powder
- 1 tbsp onion powder
- 1/2 tsp paprika
- 2 tbsp fresh basil finely chopped, plus more for topping
- 6 oz. tomato paste
- Season a large sauce pan with olive oil and heat over medium high heat, until the oil is shimmering.
- Add the onions and generously drizzle some more olive oil on top. Sprinkle a generous pinch of salt and then sauté so they are fully coated in olive oil and evenly dispersed in the pan. Mix in the pan so the then let them sit in the pan for 2 minutes, until slightly golden brown. Adjust the heat to medium and sauté and continue to let them develop color for 1-2 minutes. You will notice some golden brown bits on the pan — that's what we want!
- Add about 1/3 cup of water to the pan to deglaze the browned bits off the bottom. Continue to sauté. The water will quickly cook off and the onions will develop a beautiful golden brown color.
- Add 2 tbsp of butter to the onions and mix until the butter is melted. You will see more browned bits on the pan, so add some more water to pick up all of the browned bits, and to transfer that flavor and color to the onions. Repeat the sauté and deglazing process for another 5 minutes, then add the garlic and set the heat to low. Cover the pot with a lid.
- Just for time management purposes, I chopped my eggplant and combined my spice mixture while the onions were sweating. Usually, you're supposed to have all the ingredients prepped ahead of time, but I think letting the onions do their work while you do yours makes the most sense. This is up to you! Either way, let the onions sweat on super low heat for another 5-10 minutes.
- To combine the spice mixture, add the chopped fennel seed, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika and dried oregano in a bowl. Mix until fully combined and set aside.
- Remove the lid from the onions and deglaze the pan with water one more time. (By now, the onions should be softer and in a beautiful golden brown buttery mixture.) Add the eggplant, then add the red wine vinegar and mix everything together. Once the red wine vinegar is fully absorbed by the eggplant and onion mixture, add all of the spice mixture, plus 2 tbsp of chopped basil. Mix until combined.
- Add the tomato paste and another pinch of salt. Stir in until combined. Cover the pan and let the sauce simmer on low heat.
- Fill a large stock pot with water and salt generously. Bring the water to a boil and cook the pasta according to the instructions.
- With a slotted spoon or strainer, transfer the pasta to the sauce and lightly mix it together with a spoon. Plate and serve with fresh basil or parsley on top. This really doesn't need cheese, but if you're vibing cheese, be my guest! Serve immediately. Leftovers will keep for 3 days in the fridge, so long as they are covered in an air tight container or with cling wrap.