Sloppy Joes

Sloppy joes you can make with meat or without, with equal success.

When I first started this blog, I was telling my co-worker and friend Haydee about it, and the first thing she asked me after I described it was something like, “Oh, and then you’ll give the healthier versions of the foods, right?”

I looked at her like she had two heads.

If my mom’s food were made healthier, it wouldn’t be mom food.  I mean, make clam chowder with low-fat milk and less butter and you just change the whole nature of the thing.

But sometimes. SOMEtimes, it really doesn’t matter.

One example is food that’s already very good when it’s unadorned. The glory of a tomato salad made with tomatoes at peak season shines, whether you use a lot of olive oil or just a little. If it’s an exceptionally good tomato, olive oil is gilding the lily. Not that I don’t like a good gilded lily from time to time.

Another example is a certain class of food that I tend to call “trashy,” but I should probably find another term. Help me out here — casual? I don’t know. Fast food, I guess.

Anyway, sloppy joes fall into this category for me. Their essence is in the textures, the sweet-and-sour-and-a-little-smoky sauce, and the fun of trying to eat it without getting it everywhere. I found out when I was a vegetarian that sloppy joes can be made with anything from tofu to lentils to commercial veggie crumbles, and the experience is roughly the same.

Growing up, I had NO idea you could make sloppy joes yourself. It was a can of Manwich in our house, and never anything else. When I was a kid, that sauce had lots of chunks of green pepper and onion in it. Those are smaller and less plentiful, but the sauce is still passable, if sweeter than I like. As it turns out, though, you don’t need the can, because you probably have most or all of the ingredients you need at home, and when you make it yourself, you get to tweak it to be just how you like it.

What you need:

Something tomatoey: Ketchup, barbecue sauce, tomato paste/sauce/puree, whatever — I’ve even used V8 juice.

Something smokey: I’ve used smoked paprika, liquid smoke, chipotle peppers, and smoky barbecue sauce.

Something sweet/sour: Ketchup is already sweet/sour, and so is barbecue sauce, but if you use another tomato product, you’ll want to add some kind of sweet thing (sugar, honey, apple juice concentrate, etc.) and some kind of sour thing (usually vinegar, but lemon juice, citric acid, and tamarind paste all work). Also, if you like things tangy rather than sweet, you can cut down or eliminate the sugar, and you can add some mustard (powder and/or prepared).

Something crumbly: browned ground beef, veggie crumbles, crumbled extra-firm (drained/pressed) tofu, ground turkey, firm cooked lentils, smoked mushrooms, crumbled tempeh, even brown rice. When I could eat soy, tempeh was probably my favorite of these. Nowadays, I mostly use Quorn crumbles.

Onions and bell peppers, any color.

Below is a recipe of sorts, or click on the thumbnails in the gallery for step-by-step photos. The slaw you see is James’s adaptation of Bakesale Betty’s — we were customers at her shop on its first day, and we continued to go there a lot until we left Oakland. If you have a chance to go, you really should. The line is always long, but it moves fast, and you should get there early, because when she sells out of chicken, it’s all over. Our location was on the corner of 51st and Telegraph in Temescal, but there are other locations, or there were last time I checked.

Eventually, I’ll make a post about the slaw, because we eat it all the time.

Do you make your own versions of fast foods you had as a child? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Sloppy Joes
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4 servings
This recipe is just a rough guide. Use what you have. Be flexible. These are sloppy, after all.
  • 1 lb of meat or veggie substitute (see post for ideas)
  • ½ onion, chopped finely
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped finely
  • 1 clove garlic, minced, or to taste
  • 1 to 1.5 cups ketchup or other tomato product (see post for ideas)
  • Something smoky (see post for ideas)
  • Something sweet/sour (see post for ideas)
  • Something spicy (optional -- I use either sriracha, chipotle, chili powder, hot sauce, or hot peppers)
  • 4 sandwich rolls
  1. Saute onion, pepper, and garlic in about ½ cup water on medium-high heat until translucent, around 5-8 minutes.
  2. Add remaining ingredients except for rolls, along with about a cup of water.
  3. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for around 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened.
  4. Spoon ¼ of the meat onto each roll and serve.


Ah, bliss. (Pantry Cooking Project, Day 5)

First weekend post-graduation. So nice to just putter around my house and relax!

It’s my first weekend as a college graduate, and it’s off to a wonderful start. Slept in a little bit (until 8am! yay!) and then delighted in a gorgeous breakfast James made us: morel omelettes, potatoes, V-8, and tea. Later, scarfed an entire pint of raspberries all by myself. Life is good.

Today’s food:

The aforementioned breakfast.


Lunch was veggie burgers with homemade mayo (you may recall we ran out of store-bought pretty early) and oven fries. James made lunch, as well. He’s a really useful guy to have around.


(I made the mayo from this recipe from the Frugal Farm Wife, Elise New.)


For dinner, I thought I’d try my hand at making flour tortillas using my friend Koko’s instructions, but I ended up feeling less ambitious than that, so I just made “Spanish rice” instead, and served it with refried beans and a tomato-and-avocado salad.


(I haven’t been mentioning snacks. Today’s snacks were the aforementioned raspberries, some milk and cookies, and a couple of white peaches. Ah, summer!)

Money spent on groceries today: $0 (project total $39.61)
Money spent in restaurants today: $0 (project total $37.76)
Food gifts received today: $0 (project total $17)
Things we’ve run out of: Mayonnaise, ice cream, hamburger patties, pork chops

Easy Spanish rice
Recipe type: Side dish
Cuisine: Pseudo-Mexican
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 6
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 1 small bell pepper (any color), finely diced
  • 1½ cups medium- or long-grained white rice
  • 3 cloves finely chopped garlic
  • 2½ cups stock or water (I used a knorr beef tub in hot water)
  • 1 cup crushed tomatoes (or tomato sauce, or diced tomatoes with the liquid)
  1. In a medium saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, for a couple of minutes, until softened. Add pepper and rice and cook and stir 5-8 minutes, until rice starts to turn light brown. Add the garlic and cook another minute.
  2. Add in broth and tomatoes. Stir and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cover. Let simmer 20 minutes, then remove from heat and let stand for 5 minutes. Fluff rice with a fork and serve.


Pantry Cooking Project, Day 3

What to drink when you don’t want to buy drinks at work.

Growing up, our beverage choice at dinner was usually water or water. We drank a lot of water in our house. Sometimes there was juice or milk at breakfast or lunch, and in the summer, Country Time lemonade or instant Nestea iced tea (you do know to boycott Nestlé, right?), but usually, it was water, and it’s still my favorite beverage. Preferably cold with no ice, but I’m pretty flexible. Am I the only one who sees people using a garden hose and wants to go over and get a quick drink? Yeah, probably the only one over the age of seven.


These days, I still mostly drink water, but I’ve gotten in the habit at The Best Job Ever of buying a drink in the afternoon: usually sweet, usually caffeinated, usually cold. Today, it’s jasmine and honey iced tea with lychee jelly. Delicious. But I want to see about moving to homemade drinks for my afternoon treat. One of the main reasons I don’t do that is that I don’t want to deal with washing out a container, but maybe I can find one that’s wide enough that I can just wash it the way I would a drinking glass. I’ll be on the lookout.

Possible afternoon bring-along drinks:

ice water (feels like more of a treat than just water from the tap)
sweet iced tea
chia lemonade or other chia drink
V-8, tomato juice, Clamato (all faves, but in hot weather, they don’t tend to satisfy thirst as well for me)
[your suggestion here]

Food today:

Breakfast was delicious. Frozen O’Brien potatoes fried in oil; eggs over easy; a little sriracha; a cup of V-8; some yellow pepper strips.


Lunch was an embarrassment of food in packets. I had taken some ham out of the freezer to make sandwiches with, but it wasn’t thawed yet when I went to make my lunch in the morning, so I just grabbed some stuff to take.


Dinner was some really amazing cheeseburgers, with those awesome homemade buns. Mom often thinks we’re not eating enough meat, so she sends us boxes of meat from Omaha Steaks. These are their burgers, topped with melted Swiss cheese and caramelized onions. Usually, I eat half my burger and give James the other half, because I’m just not all that into big chunks of meat, but this time, I ate the whooooooole thing, and it was just. so. good.


Money spent on groceries today: $0
Money spent in restaurants today: $2.99 (project total $11.52)
Food gifts received today: $0 (project total $17)
Things we’ve run out of: Mayonnaise, ice cream, milk, hamburger patties

Mom’s kind of burger

Classic American burger.

Just a quick post today. The burgers I made would make my mom’s mouth water. Rare, lean beef. Toasted buns. Lots of veggies. (Cheese on James’s, but not on mine. I don’t usually do cheese on burgers.)

SO delicious. The kind of food I grew up on. Just a quarter pound of lean ground beef for each burger, sprinkled with salt/pepper/garlic and seared in a hot pan. Served with oven fries (from fresh russets, tossed in oil and roasted in a single layer in a 400°F oven) and plenty of ketchup to dip the fries in.

cheeseburger, oven fries, ketchup


Mertie’s Mondays: Acadian Stuffing and Turkey Sandwiches

Pull up a chair and have some stuffing and a slice of soup from frequent contributor Chris Hansen.

[Note from Serene: I’ve been hanging on to this recipe of Chris’s until the cool weather returned. And now I’m at school and wishing I had stuffing to eat! Thanks, Chris, for another great story, and for introducing me to another new food!]

I think that all of us who cook want to duplicate items our moms cooked. However, much of the time moms cook by touch and feel and experience, and don’t write down a recipe. Decades later, you remember something she used to make but can’t duplicate it for lack of a recipe.

My mom made the best stuffing imaginable. We used to look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas simply because we’d get turkey with her stuffing. I remember being in the kitchen when she’d make it, and what I could remember of it was that it was a combination of potatoes and bread with spices and onions. But, I didn’t want to experiment and I thought to myself that the stuffing recipe was lost forever.

However, I recently bought a cookbook called A Taste of Acadie, by Marielle Cormier-Boudreau and Melvin Gallant. Acadie, or Acadia, is the name of the area of Nova Scotia inhabited by French-Canadians. A goodly number of them left for warmer climes in Louisiana, and turned from Acadians into Cajuns, keeping their taste for fish but leaving other food preferences behind.

A quick flip through the book will show that the great resource on which a goodly amount of Acadian cookery is based is the potato. Rappie pie is made from grated potato with the water squeezed out, layered with meat and baked. Potato pancakes also feature.

The first time I went through the book I didn’t pick up on the Acadian stuffing recipe. However, a week or so ago I came across Acadian stuffing and, lo and behold, my mom’s stuffing recipe jumped out at me. It makes sense, as my mom probably got her recipe from her mom, who was born and raised in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. My grandmother’s father was a sea cook, working on the fishing vessels that sailed from Lunenburg to the Grand Banks to catch the cod that figured in many Acadian recipes.

I suppose that I should really keep this recipe for Thanksgiving or Christmas, when turkey is on the menu. But I am so excited by it that I can’t wait that long. It’s like discovering a long-lost novel that you read years ago. You have to read it again as soon as you’ve found it.

Start out with mashed potatoes. For a chicken 2 potatoes, mashed (no butter or milk) should be sufficient. Do not rice the potatoes, as lumps are good in this recipe.

Then take three pieces of bread, dry them in an oven, and crumble them. Chop 1 onion and 2 ribs of celery, and sauté them in 3 tbsp. butter. Add the bread crumbs and brown lightly, then add the mashed potatoes, salt and pepper, and 1 tbsp summer savory or Bell’s Seasoning. If the mixture is a bit dry, add a bit of water or chicken stock to moisten. Stuff your bird and roast as usual.

If you’re roasting a turkey, increase all the amounts in the recipe and if you can’t get all the stuffing in the bird, put it in a pyrex dish and bake it along with the bird.

My mom also used to stuff pork chops with this stuffing. After making the stuffing, take thick pork chops and cut a horizontal pocket in the side of the chop. Spoon stuffing into that pocket and bake as usual. You can also just pile the stuffing on top of the chop—it browns very nicely.

A word about summer savory. The Wikipedia article says that it’s used in Atlantic Canada in preference to sage. I have to say that I have never heard of it, and my mom never used it in this recipe, to my knowledge. What she used is Bell’s Seasoning. I do not know whether this is available nationwide in the US—I do know it’s not available here, but I will be bringing some back with me next time I visit Marblehead. If you can’t source Bell’s Seasoning, use sage.

You may think this is total nostalgia on my part, and you may also be right. Nostalgia is good. Aching after your past, even though you will never experience it again, helps you keep in mind the good times, the bad times, the people you loved and who loved you, the places you lived and visited, and is a memorial to all that has gone into making you you.

I remember leftover turkey going into sandwiches on Thanksgiving night. Take two slices of white bread and slather both with mayonnaise. Cover the bottom slice with sliced turkey breast, then a layer of my mom’s stuffing, then a few spoonfuls of cranberry sauce. Salt and pepper to taste, then cover with the other piece of bread and enjoy. These were absolutely delicious and were just enough to keep people who’d gorged in the early afternoon from getting hungry at 8 pm. I had leftover chicken today, but no stuffing. The sandwich I made didn’t taste the same without the stuffing, but it was close.

I’ll end with a holiday Momfood disaster that I forgot to recount in my previous post covering things my Mom didn’t get quite right. Leftover turkey is always a problem, and my mom wanted to make turkey soup. She had a recipe from her mother, and this recipe specified ½ tbsp of barley. Mom looked at the puny (to her) amount of barley and decided that the recipe must have been wrong. She put in half a cup.

When we were finally called to dinner, Mom gave us each a slice of turkey “soup”, as the amount of barley had soaked up all the liquid in the soup. As with all my mom’s culinary disasters, it tasted delicious, and whenever I have stuffing, or chicken, or turkey, I think of that slice of soup. It would go very well with stuffing.