Messy memories: Updating a school lunch favorite

Steve Peters / Photo

By Steve Peters

When’s the last time you had a sloppy joe? I bet it’s been a while. These fun to eat, loose meat-filled sandwiches are often considered kid food. I don’t know why, though. If I had kids I feel like I might try to limit the amount of intentionally messy foods I gave them.

Maybe they fall into kid territory because they’re simple to prepare and typically don’t involve many complex flavors. It’s an easy-to-please kind of meal, and that’s probably why they’re commonly found on school cafeteria lunch menus. At least, they were when I was a kid.

But It doesn’t have to be that way. You can add some sophistication and a bit more nutritional value to the basic sloppy joe formula of ground beef, spices and sauce. If you’re willing to deviate from the traditional recipe, that is.

Where the sloppy joe first popped up is unclear. It may have originated at one of a few different places called Sloppy Joe’s in Key West or even Havana. Or it may have been thought up by a guy named Joe out in the Midwest who added tomato sauce to his ground-beef sandwiches. It doesn’t really matter. The sandwich is well-known throughout the country, and most everyone understands the concept.

Sloppy joes also fall into the realm of comfort food. Though we think of comfort food mostly for the cold weather months, I think sloppy joes fit in just fine during summer. They’re not all that different from hamburgers, and they’re guaranteed to be moist, not tough and dry like many a home-grilled burger.

I like to pack my sloppy joes up with fresh vegetables from the garden. Partly to offset all of the ice cream I eat in the summer, and also because I have a seemingly endless supply of fresh produce right outside my back door. Virtually everything I make these days is loaded up with fruits and vegetables. This happened to be the first time I used my celery, which I grew for the first time this year. I’ve come to the realization that celery is way underrated, although I still don’t like it in a salad. Celery has its place, though, and I think I’ll devote an upcoming column on how we can better use and appreciate the maligned vegetable.

Sloppy joes are one of those dishes where you can throw in the extra vegetables without having them detract or impose on the sandwich. They cook down and meld well with the sauce and meat. So, if you have a picky vegetable eater, like my brother-in-law, this is a good dish for those people in your life. Chop the vegetables small enough and they won’t know what you threw in there.

I think a good sloppy joe should be slightly sweet, yet a little acidic. I use a mix of cumin, chili powder and smoked paprika, along with soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce for flavor, a little brown sugar for sweetness, and red wine vinegar to keep things balanced. The raisins add a little sweetness as well, and I like them because they plump up and help keep the meat moist. Of course, you can adjust these seasonings to levels that you like, just go easy on the brown sugar. Too many sloppy joes are overwhelmingly sweet. Don’t forget, it’s dinner, not dessert.

Everyone serves sloppy joes on hamburger buns. I might be alone in this, but I’m going to go ahead and say they’re better with hot dog buns. Why? Because you can actually pick them up without all of the filling falling out. I suppose you can use a fork and knife if you like, but there’s no fun in that.

Vegged-out sloppy joes

Serves: 4-6

  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 bell pepper
  • 1 small zucchini
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 jalapeño
  • 1 pound ground turkey or beef
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 cups tomato sauce
  • ½ cup water
  • ¼ cup raisins
  • 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
  • Hamburger or hot dog buns
  • Shredded cheese and pickles for serving

Chop the onion, pepper, zucchini and celery. In a large pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Sauté the chopped vegetables for 5 to 10 minutes or until soft. Meanwhile, mince the garlic and jalapeño and add them to the pan when ready.

Add the ground turkey to the pan with the cumin, chili powder and smoked paprika. Break up the turkey with a spoon and allow to cook until browned, about 7 to 10 minutes. When brown, stir in the soy sauce, brown sugar, Worcestershire, tomato sauce, water and raisins. Allow to simmer for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the sauce has reduced and the mixture has thickened up. Then stir in the vinegar, taste, and adjust any of the seasonings to your liking. If you like things sloppier, add more water for a thinner sauce.

Serve the sloppy joes by filling plenty of the mixture into lightly toasted buns and top with shredded cheese. Throw a few pickles on the side, grab a stack of napkins, and you’re good to go.

Steve Peters

Steve Peters is a cook, gardener and baker living in Rutland.

More Posts

Follow Me: