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.


Pantry Cooking Project, Day 7

Day 7 of the project; still plenty of food in the house

Long, hard day. Here, have a photo!

This is dinner: macaroni with homemade spaghetti sauce, cooked green beans, and a salad of tomatoes, avocados, red peppers, olive oil, salt, and balsamic vinegar.



It’s day 7 of our project, and we’re nowhere near running out of food. We are still shopping, but only for veggies and coffee. I am still eating out a lot; not sure when I became a person who can’t go a week without buying prepared food. Good to know about myself, though!

Breakfast was an apple and a slice of cheddar. I took a cellphone photo of it, but it didn’t turn out.

Lunch was an avocado sandwich, a cold artichoke dipped in homemade mayo, and a pear. Later, a bought snack: cheese fries and an iced tea.

I forgot to post the week’s menu plan, so I may as well do that:

Monday (pasta): see above

Tuesday (Mexican): If I’m up for it, I’ll make flour tortillas and have soft tacos. Otherwise, it’s Spanish rice again, with beans and veggies (I bought tomatoes and cilantro today).

Wednesday (noodles): Peanut noodles with tofu

Thursday (sandwiches): Veggie burgers with homemade buns

Friday (stir-fry): Stir-fry seitan and rice and veggies

Saturday (chickpea gravy): chickpea gravy and potatoes

Sunday (anything I want to make): fish and chips

Money spent on groceries today: $30.70 (project total $86.56)
Money spent in restaurants: $7 (project total $99.76)
Food gifts received today: $0 (project total $17)
Things we’ve run out of: Mayonnaise, ice cream, hamburger patties, pork chops

Pantry Cooking Project, Day 2

Some veggie-miso soup today. And already spending money in restaurants. *sigh*

I wasn’t hungry at breakfast time, and I knew I would be eating lunch out, so I took a bag of snacks to work. Ended up eating most of it, a little bit at at time as the day went on. Didn’t eat the walnuts, which are a good thing for me to carry as a snack, because I don’t like them enough to just eat them for the sake of them, but they’re great to have if I get genuinely hungry.

bags of snack foods: cheese, cheetos, apple, granola bar, walnuts

Ate lunch out with a group of co-workers, including my friend Danny, who paid for my lunch (it was only a two-dollar slice of pizza, but still). Then I bought us both dessert and myself some iced tea — total $8.53.

For dinner, I stuck to the plan for a change. Made miso-vegetable soup. Basically, make any vegetable soup you like, boil some tofu cubes and rice noodles in there for a bit, then add 2-4 tablespoons of miso that have been stirred into a little warm water first. And some soy sauce. A lot if you like salt the way we do. :-) It was good, but fairly… dull. Pretty, though. Veggies this time were onions, garlic, carrots, celery, kale, sugar snap peas, and hijiki.

two bowls of soup with spoons and chopsticks

Money spent on groceries today: $0
Money spent in restaurants today: $8.53 (project total $8.53; sigh. I am hoping not to spend too much on food out this month. I do still have one office lunch left this week, though, for a co-worker who is leaving.)
Food gifts received today: $2 (project total $17)
Things we’ve run out of: Mayonnaise, ice cream, milk (poured it out; it had gone bad)

Cheesepalooza: Whole-milk Ricotta

Sorta-homemade lasagna with actually-homemade ricotta

I’ve been resisting making this post for a week and a half, for two reasons:

1) My photos didn’t come out all that well, and
2) My ricotta didn’t come out all that well. I couldn’t get it to set up properly. Cooking from the Market’s buttermilk ricotta is much more reliable for me, and the texture is right, while this was rubbery.

This is the first recipe in Cheesepalooza, though, and I have lots more chances to get it right. Besides, the resulting lasagna was ASTOUNDINGLY good, so hey, success!

Here’s the cheese draining on the faucet:

homemade ricotta draining

And here’s the lasagna after I ate all my dinner, went “Oh, shoot! I need a photo!” and put a little more on a plate to photograph.

sorta-homemade lasagna, one slice

It was so darn good, we managed to polish off that little more, too. SO good. And way easy, because I only sort of homemade it. You don’t even really need a recipe. What I did was bought four sheets of fresh pasta (two regular, two spinach) and layered them with jarred sauce, the homemade ricotta, and sliced whole-milk mozzarella. I ran out of mozzarella at the end (I used a pound), so I added some shredded cheddar on the top layer. This went together in maybe five minutes, and then I baked it at 350, covered, for about a half hour, then uncovered it and baked until everything was hot and bubbly. SO good!

And now here’s the worst pic of all. This doesn’t do this delicious thing justice, I promise you.

sorta-homemade lasagna

[Edit: Here’s a photo of an old batch of ricotta, made with the recipe linked above:]

ricotta in a strainer

Day three and a promise

Day 3 of the cleanse brings a promise from me.

I promise to post about something else as soon as:

1) This cleanse thing is over; OR

2) I have a day where I forget to take photos; OR

3) I have a day in which I eat all stuff I’ve already posted about.

But in the meanwhile, here’s the food for day 3 of the cleanse.

Breakfast: Fried O’Brien potatoes, homemade ketchup, watermelon, and V-8


Lunch: Big salad with homemade sesame dressing (mixed up sesame oil, rice vinegar, agave nectar, grated fresh ginger, wheat-free tamari, and grated garlic to taste), topped with sesame salt; fresh cherries

Salad and cherries

Snacks: Nuts, seasoned seaweed, and Oh, so much fruit. More than I can show you here, but among the bounty was more watermelon. Also, white peaches so ripe it’s making my mouth water to tell you about them. And more cherries. And so on. Plus a latte made with decaf espresso and homemade soymilk. (The soymilk maker is still in the testing phase. I’m working on it.)

peaches, watermelon, and soy latte

Dinner: Tamale pie. The plan was for chili, but I was waffling on finding a good vegan, gluten-free cornbread, and James suggested I just make some more polenta, add olives to the chili, and make tamale pie. Those of you who’ve been around a while know that James is big on suggesting yummy and time-consuming things for me to make, so I was happy to oblige with this relatively quick and easy dish.

Tamale pie

I also added some olive oil and a fair bit of garlic and nutritional yeast to the polenta before pouring it over the chili (which I dished into the baking dish with a slotted spoon so it wouldn’t be too soupy). The chili is based on the Moosewood recipe that Susan V. adapts here, but I left out the bulgur and used some olive oil in the preparation.

So there it is. There’ll be more Mom Food when this is over. I promise!