Growing up, Charlotte, NC was not a very diverse place.
We didn’t have many “Eye-talians” living in the city; therefore, we had limited knowledge of Italian food.
“Spaghetti” meant thick, soft, overcooked spaghetti noodles with ketchup. (I really wish I was exaggerating about this one, but I’m not. Much.)
“Spaghetti Bolognese” meant a little ground beef or sausage would be mixed in with the ketchup.
My family was more epicurious than most. We sometimes dined at the only Italian restaurant in Charlotte – Little Italy on Central Avenue. Opened in 1967, Little Italy featured, “Pizza! Spaghetti! Manicotti! Eggplant Parmigiana! Famous Greek Salad!” It was a welcome and zesty change from fried chicken and fried bologna. The interior seemed just as exotic, with dark wood, red checkered tablecloths, and miniature brass hurricane lamps on every table.
Perhaps inspired by Little Italy, my mother actually had a spaghetti sauce recipe that included real tomatoes (no ketchup!), hearty chunks of ground beef, and plenty of garlic, oregano, and other spices. It was a robust, hearty sauce bursting with flavor. This she served over the thinnest of spaghetti noodles cooked al dente.
This disturbed and upset some of our other fellow Southerners who dined with us on Sundays.
“This doesn’t taste like Chef Boyardee,” observed one.
“I have to chew my noodles,” complained another.
And others looked askance at the bay leaves my mother fished out of the sauce before serving – “Bless her heart, did she put PECAN LEAVES in her spaghetti sauce?”
I loved it, though, and it’s been one of the few dishes I’ve missed as a vegan. Yes, I make many other pasta dishes – (Puttanesca! Arribiata! Pomodoro!) – but those are somewhat lighter, more nuanced sauces. Assertive sauces like my mom’s need a hearty “meat” texture to balance out the flavor, and somehow Boca has never been quite right.
Enter Upton’s Naturals Italian Seitan crumbles. About a month ago, Upton’s sent me some coupons to sample their all-natural seitan products, in return for posting product reviews and developing a few recipes. Tuesday I was testing their Italian Seitan crumbles. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them, but the first step, of course, was browning them in a skillet with a wee bit of olive oil.
I was surprised by the resulting taste and texture. Perhaps it was the chewiness, perhaps it was the fennel, but the crumbles reminded me of Italian sausage, not ground beef. I could immediately visualize using this to top a pizza.
But the most logical thing to test this in was a pasta sauce. Since the crumbles were rather strongly seasoned, I decided to go with a mild and simple sauce.
(Note: Upton’s Naturals have become hard to find in my area. I’ve made this with other brands of crumbles and it’s just as good, just not quite as spicy. Try Beyond Beef Crumbles or another brand of seitan crumbles.)
1 package Upton’s Naturals Italian Seitan
1-2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
28 oz. canned Crushed Tomatoes (Italian-Style or Basil, Garlic, Oregano Flavored)
4 cloves Garlic, minced
1 medium yellow Onion, diced
1/3 cup + 1/3 cup dry Red Wine
1 teaspoon Sea Salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon Dried Oregano
1/2 teaspoon Dried Basil
1 Bay Leaf
Freshly Ground Black Pepper, to taste
Brown the Upton’s Naturals Italian seitan with about a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet. Once browned, put in a bowl and set aside.
In the same saucepan, heat the other tablespoon of olive oil and add the onions. Saute on medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for another 2-3 minutes, stirring to make sure the garlic doesn’t burn.
Add 1/3 cup dry red wine. Cover pot and let simmer for another 2-3 minutes.
Add tomatoes, sea salt, basil, oregano, bay leaf, a good grinding of black pepper, and the remaining 1/3 cup red wine. Bring to a boil again, cover, reduce heat, and let simmer for 10 minutes.
After 10 minutes, begin heating the water for your pasta. At this point add in the Upton’s Naturals Italian Seitan crumbles. Stir to distribute evenly, then cover pot again and let the sauce continue to simmer until your pasta is ready.
Mama Mia! It was delizioso!
The seitan took on a completely different texture after simmering. It was very convincingly meat-like, still chewy but a little softer and “juicier.” I truly believe this would fool most omnivores.
And the sapore! I thought the crumbles tasted a bit strong by themselves but they became milder upon simmering, while at the same time infusing the sauce with a certain depth and richness of flavor. Together the crumbles and sauce combined to make a hearty, robust, and very filling dish reminiscent of my mother’s.
I’ll definitely be making … and eating … this sauce again!