The other night I made this lentil bolognese. It’s made with organic steamed lentils for a hearty “meat” texture full of rich tomato flavor, along with smoky paprika, sun-dried tomatoes, and fire-roasted red bell peppers. This is my plant-based take on a meaty Italian favorite (served with gluten-free fettuccine), but you can use any type of pasta for this recipe.
I’ve partnered with Gelson’s supermarkets featuring Melissa’s Produce for their Taste of Italy promotional campaign. If you live outside of the area from Gelson’s and can’t find any Melissa’s Produce products, feel free to improvise. A good sauce takes on your own personality.
And you’re going to want to make a lot of this sauce, because let me tell you, this vegan bolognese has a story.
Last year I did a medical DNA test to see what genetic health risks I may have. As I’m getting closer to 50 years old, I thought a physical with genetic screening would be a good idea. Well, to make a long story short, in addition to discovering that I’m British, Irish, French, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Italian, and Sicilian, I also found out that I was adopted at birth.
So I spit into a tube and sent it off to a lab for analysis. About a month later, the lab results came in. I was excited. I had done the 23andMe DNA test a month before, and had a first cousin reach out to me. We couldn’t figure out how we were first cousins, so I thought taking the Ancestry test might reveal more.
What I found out: forty-nine years ago, my parents were two teenagers in love, but they weren’t the parents I knew as mom and dad. More specifically, the results revealed an unmistakable genetic connection to a man who was my father: 3,455 centimorgans of DNA to be exact. But this man who was my genetic parent/child match was someone I didn’t know a thing about. He had the same last name as my mysterious first cousin. Did my mom have an affair?
Your DNA suggests that 18.0% of your ancestry is Italian.
The map located the origins of my Italian ancestry in Sicily. I sat in front of the screen staring into it blankly. No Jewish ancestry, not a trace.
My mind scrolled through memories with my family, trying to piece it all together. I knew my grandfather’s family were Russian Jewish immigrants. I mean, how can a man named Yossel from a small shtetl near Odessa be Italian? Maybe it was my dad’s side. I couldn’t wrap my brain around the genetic results. Even if my dad’s side had a mix of these ethnicities, what perplexed me the most was the absence of Eastern European Jewish DNA. My family and I shared years of celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Chanukkah. My son even had a bar mitzvah. Someone was the missing link.
Okay. Another hypothesis. Maybe my mom’s side of the family wasn’t really Jewish, but Italians that moved to… the Ukraine? That doesn’t make sense. I was so confused. The Italian part was not fitting in. I knew there was British and Irish ancestry, and okay, French and German seemed possible. But, Swedish? Italian?
Who was I, really, and who were my parents? My heartbeat thumped wildly as my mind galloped through all of the scenes of my life. But who were the two people I called mom and dad? I relived memories from childhood in my mind searching for clues. All of my life I had a sense that something was missing, but I just couldn’t describe it. I chalked it up to being creative, this yearning for something. Now I realize that I’m just a complicated puzzle in the process of being put back together by the grace of the universe.
The family I grew up with had never told me, and perhaps for good reasons. Yet I wasn’t close enough to my adoptive mom to ask for details— we were estranged for years and barely spoke to each other. My adopted dad died of brain cancer in 2015. Soon after his death, my beloved grandma died at 97, and my adoptive aunt died a year later, also from cancer. There was no one to ask. My grandfather was gone too.
As I was the closest to my grandma, it was difficult to believe she kept this a secret from me. We all lovingly called her “Mixing Millie” (her name was Mildred) or “Hyacinth Bouquet” (if you know the British show “Keeping Up Appearances”) because she enjoyed telling people your business. “Don’t tell anyone,” I’d beg. But soon enough, she was on the phone with all of her friends, telling them what I told her. I guess my adoption was the only thing she didn’t talk about. This was the big family secret. It made me miss her all the more, wanting to plop down on her comfy couch with a goblet-sized glass of wine and listen to her tell me the whole story.
Italy has 20 administrative regions, and we found the strongest evidence of your ancestry in the following 3 regions: Sicily, Campania, Calabria.
And I wanted to know the whole story, all regions of it.
I called two of my adoptive cousins— one here in California, and another in England. They told me all that they could, but even they didn’t know the details, except that their aunt and uncle adopted me after their first baby died of cancer from radiation poisoning. That’s all they knew.
So the picture developed into a clearer idea of what happened. My adopted mom was an x-ray technician while she was pregnant with her first baby, David. This was the late 1960s. The medical world was discovering the adverse effects of x-ray exposure. My adopted parents grieved the death of their one-year-old baby. I was a bundle in their arms only one month later.
My grandfather (the man I knew as my grandfather) was a radiologist.
Then the puzzle pieces came together: he did ultrasound at the hospital where my biological mom went for her maternity checkups. My grandfather arranged a private adoption, never expecting DNA to uncover it. Perhaps he shouldn’t have done it the way he did, for his own daughter. Maybe that’s why it was all kept a secret. Maybe so.
Both of my moms looked a lot alike. And both grieved the loss of a baby. As my biological mom gave me over to the nurses, my adopted mom lost her baby to cancer.
My cousin in England cried tears of joy and relief during our FaceTime conversation. “You were always searching for something, but you never knew why, and all these years I’ve wanted to tell you but was told to never say a word,” she said through her tears, “and the crazy thing is that you do look like us, and we’re your family too.”
I had to write an email to my biological father, but I didn’t know how to phrase it. So the intro was simply put that we were closely related, possibly father and daughter. It took a day later for his reply. He was playing guitar at Tom Petty’s birthday tribute the night I sent the message.
Dad was taken by surprise but overjoyed to hear from me. After a few initial emails, he shared as much as he could about my mom. I teased him about being a musician during the “summer of love”— dad is a rock guitarist— as I was conceived in 1969. Maybe not the actual summer of ‘69, but a little later, in the fall. A love child. I asked if he even remembered who my mom was.
“There was only one woman, and she was my first love,” my dad wrote in reply during our first few emails. He explained that his parents were insensitive to his girlfriend’s pregnancy. Their solution: give the girlfriend’s family money to make the baby go away, and send their son off to boarding school. It became a sort of Romeo and Juliet scenario between the two families.
My grandparents insisted that my dad cut off all contact with my mom, and made him sign a legal agreement. He had overheard his parents conversation: make the baby go away. It was settled between my two sets of grandparents. Done deal.
Later on, even though he promised his parents he wouldn’t, my dad tried desperately to find my mom. “Well, it was the 70s, not so easy to find someone like it is now with the internet,” he explained. Dad sent me a grainy black and white photo of my mom’s high school portrait from his yearbook. When I saw my mom’s face, I knew. There was no question in my mind. We had the same eyes, the same smile. I choked back tears. She must’ve felt so terribly sad. I couldn’t stop staring at her photo, so I saved it in the camera roll of my phone.
I wondered what it was like for my mom to leave the hospital without me. I heard her side of the story a month later. She was barely 17 years old, frightened, not sure if she could raise me. A pregnant girl in 1970 didn’t have the kind of support she needed, and certainly not from her angry father.
Stephanie, your DNA suggests that 31.1% of your ancestry is British & Irish.
My dad hoped that he would find me one day. So he made himself discoverable on his Ancestry profile after his DNA test, with the hopes that maybe one day his son or daughter would also do the same. That day came as I clicked the link to read my DNA results, not expecting to find the father I never knew I had.
After we connected through Ancestry, we emailed, texted, and called each other every day. Finally, we decided to meet face to face. After a big hug, we sat in his cozy living room full of my stepmom’s paintings and my dad’s guitars and chatted for hours. I brought my two daughters along to meet their grandpa. My older daughter exclaimed that her grandpa “plays guitar like Jimi Hendrix!” I couldn’t wait for my oldest son to meet his grandpa too.
We realized that we’ve been living so close to each other all this time. I grew up in Los Feliz, less than 15 minutes away from Glendale, where both of my parents lived. Dad shared my mom’s name and birthdate with me, so I searched for my biological mom through the Ancestry database search. I spent the next few weeks unraveling and piecing together the epic story of my birth.
Now my dad is married to a wonderful woman for the past 24 years, a talented artist and painter. They live just 20 minutes away from my house in Los Angeles. He has two children from a previous marriage, my brother and sister.
Mom lives in Northern California. She has two children, my brothers, from her longtime marriage to a sweet guy I now get to call my stepdad. I’ve spent this past year getting to know both of my parents and stepparents.
The most extraordinary moment was the day I met my mom. It was on my 49th birthday this year. We finally met after all of these years apart. It was such a tremendous feeling, I’ve been at a loss for words. Perhaps something like this is beyond meaningful. It’s magical.
Stephanie, your DNA suggests that 28.6% of your ancestry is French & German.
What are the chances of finding my parents accidentally, just because I thought to be a grown-up and get a full physical?
Two of my three brothers and my sister visited Los Angeles to meet. I’ve also connected with aunts and cousins. And oh my goodness, I’m an auntie of many nieces and nephews! It’s such a gift that has changed my whole life for the better, a profound turning point to find all of the family I never knew I had.
Genome studies have shown so many fascinating things, such as variants influencing the ratio of our index to ring fingers, to an extreme aversion to cilantro (Yep, that’s my dad, he hates cilantro). Neanderthal variants, of which I have more than I’d like to say (thanks German ancestors!), can affect your food preferences too. I have one Neanderthal variant that makes me less likely to sneeze after eating dark chocolate.
So about the bolognese recipe.
Fast forward one year: While doing a genealogy search of the Italian side of my mom’s family, I emailed my grand-aunt, the youngest daughter of my Sicilian immigrant great-grandparents. And what did I get in reply? A family recipe. The di Francesco family meat sauce. Because we’re famiglia!
Of course, my family’s Sicilian style meat sauce is laden with sausage and beef and takes hours and hours to cook. I had to laugh. The Italian side of my family doesn’t know I’ve been vegetarian all my life and only eat plant-based foods. But I couldn’t reject the kind offering of the meaty bolognese sauce recipe. The fact that I was generously given the secret family meat sauce as a “welcome to the family” recipe put such a big smile on my face.
So this is the shortest summary of my story I can give you. I had to share this because otherwise, you wouldn’t understand why I’m making a big deal over the family bolognese recipe. As it’s said in Italian, “mangia bene, ridi spesso, ama molto” which translates as eat well, laugh often, and love a lot.
I’m excited to be part Italian (Grazie mamma!) and a part of the di Francesco family. Actually, I’m part Sicilian, and a pinch of southern Italian, like a good pomodoro sauce.
(Mom reminds me that I’m also part German… is it possible to make vegan schnitzel?)
And we haven’t even covered my dad’s side in terms of food linking to ethnicity. Perhaps in other recipe posts, I can bake British tea scones, make Irish soda bread, and whip up some Swedish “neatballs” with lingonberry sauce. Yes, he also has a lot of German ancestry. What am I doing for Octoberfest, you say?
Oh, side note on meat sauce: When I was a teenager, I had a boyfriend who’s mom was very Italian. She and I never spoke a word to each other because she didn’t speak English, but I got a dose of some heavy Italian sauce instead. In fact, his mom spent an entire Sunday making a meaty bolognese sauce. She stirred the pot with a big wooden spoon, adding a pinch of something here and there, tending to it over the stove for hours. Later she served the sauce up in the form of a massive baked mostaccioli for dinner. Despite my strong vegetarian preferences, I politely ate a small amount. My belly was so bloated afterward that I haven’t had bolognese ever since.
Well, if you love lentils in a smoky paprika tomato sauce, spoon this one up and serve it with your favorite pasta, and don’t forget to make extra for a family size lasagna. Unlike its meaty relative, this sauce takes less than an hour to make. My Sicilian roots give me license to make this vegan with lentils, but I wonder what my grandfather would think of it. Supposedly, just like his mother, he made the best lasagna, so try this sauce with lasagna too, capisce?
This sauce uses Melissa’s Produce ingredients found at my local Gelson’s supermarket in partnership to promote the Taste of Italy promotional in store. (Note: Melissa’s Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto is vegetarian, not vegan, as it contains some parmesan cheese. To make this recipe entirely vegan, you can easily make your own sun-dried tomato pesto without parmesan.)
Vegan Lentil Bolognese
Serves 2-4 people, vegan/vegetarian, gluten-free optional
1 onion, peeled and chopped fine
3 carrots, peeled and chopped fine
2 tsp olive oil
1/2 cup vegetable broth
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 tbl smoked paprika
6 fire-roasted sweet red bell peppers
4 tbl Melissa’s sun-dried tomato pesto or vegan tomato pesto
1 400g can tomatoes
2 x 9 oz. (255g) package Melissa’s steamed lentils
Sea salt and pepper, to taste
pasta of your choice
fresh basil leaves, chopped, to garnish (optional)
In a food processor, blend the carrots and onion until fine. If you don’t have a food processor just chop fine.
In a large saucepan or skillet, sauté the onion and carrots with some olive oil and cook over a medium heat for approximately 10 minutes until soft.
Add garlic and paprika and continue to cook for about 5 minutes.
Add the smoked paprika and stir to combine.
Continue to stir over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes. Turn off flame.
Add two cans of tomatoes, fire-roasted sweet red bell peppers, and sun-dried tomato pesto to the blender.
Blend for a few seconds until well mixed.
Add the tomato sauce mixture to the pan of sautéed carrots, onion, garlic and paprika.
Add a little veggie broth and stir to incorporate.
Add two packages of steamed lentils to the sauce in pan. Mix to combine the lentils into the sauce.
Turn flame on low and allow to simmer for about 15-20 minutes.
Add sea salt and pepper, to taste.
Serve the lentil bolognese sauce with your favorite pasta.
Garnish with fresh basil leaves and vegan parmesan or nutritional yeast for flavor.