Everyone has a tale about what the lunch ladies ladled up in the school cafeteria: Chicken nuggets so rubbery you swear they’d bounce if you threw one on the floor. Mystery-meat tacos. The dreaded (in our house, anyway) Brunch for Lunch. And, of course, greasy, tomato-y, oozing-from-the-bun sloppy Joe sandwiches.
Love ’em or hate ’em, the messy chopped meat and tomato sauce sandwiches – I dare you to try eating one of those babies without staining your fingers or shirt – are for many an iconic lunch food of childhood. For meat eaters of a certain age, they also showed up fairly often on the dinner table at home, usually with tater tots and sometimes an iceberg-lettuce salad, if my mom was feeling especially fancy.
I grew up in the Manwich era, so forgive me if I wasn’t always a fan of the sloppy Joe. I always found the canned sauce, introduced by Hunt’s in 1969, a bit too sweet and soupy – more like an unsuccessful marriage of barbecue sauce and ketchup than the slightly tangy, slightly spicy sauce that the kitchen gods intended. But I could be in the minority: The sandwich is so beloved that it merits its own National Food Holiday (March 18), and somehow, I don’t think everyone who celebrates is cooking from scratch: ConAgra sold more than 70 million cans of Manwich last year.
But a homemade Joe? That can be a beautiful thing, not to mention a quick and easy way to get a filling (and inexpensive) dinner on the table.
Skillet-cooked, hamburger-based sloppy Joes remain the American standard, though sometimes the dish is known by another name. In Rhode Island, for instance, where the tomato-y meat mixture is served on a torpedo roll, it’s called a dynamite sandwich; you’ll also find the sandwich described on menus as the yum yum, slush burger, spoonburger or, when it’s made with turkey or some sort of vegetable protein, a sloppy Jane or sloppy Tom. The New Jersey Sloppy Joe is something altogether different – a cold, triple-decker deli sandwich made with sliced meat (usually turkey or pastrami), Swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing.
For people who don’t like or think they’re too busy to cook, there’s always Hunt’s Manwich sauces, of course, which now come in Bold and Thick & Chunky flavors in addition to the 1960s original. If you absolutely, positively don’t want to lift a finger except to push the microwave “on” button, there’s also a premixed, precooked Manwich product that comes in a heatable plastic container. (A lunch lady hairnet to wear while serving it is optional.)
But really, wouldn’t that be a mistake when the real deal is so easy to prepare?
You’re going to be browning ground beef (or turkey or pork) anyway, so why not give the sandwich a nutritional boost with fresh veggies and seasonings? It’s so much better tasting, and not that much harder.
Another plus to cooking your sloppies from scratch: If you’re willing to be just a bit adventurous with the meat and seasonings, you’ll create a dish that will become legendary in your kids’ minds for all the right reasons.
Below, we offer a variety of sloppy Joe recipes that, if they were served in the school cafeteria, would make you think twice about brown-bagging it.
Traditional Sloppy Joes
1 pound lean (at least 80 percent) ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped (½ cup)
½ cup chopped celery
1 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon Worcester shire sauce
1 teaspoon ground mustard
∂ teaspoon pepper
6 burger buns, split
In 10-inch skillet, cook beef, onions and celery over medium heat 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until beef is done. Drain.
Stir in remaining ingredients except buns. Heat to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer uncovered 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender. Spoon into buns.
Makes 6 sandwiches.
– Betty Crocker Cookbook, 11th Edition: The Big Red Cookbook (Betty Crocker; April 2, 2013; $21.99)
Asian Sloppy Joe Sliders
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 medium red onions, finely chopped
1 cup finely chopped celery
3 tablespoons sambal oelek or other Asian chile sauce
2½ tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon peeled, minced fresh ginger
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound ground chicken thighs
1 pound ground pork
1 cup hoisin sauce
1 cup drained canned diced tomatoes
½ cup fresh lime juice
20 brioche dinner rolls, split and toasted
Shredded iceberg lettuce and spicy pickles, for serving
In a large, deep skillet, heat canola oil until shimmering. Add onions, celery, chili sauce, garlic, ginger and a generous pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened, about 8 minutes.
Add ground chicken and pork and cook, stirring occasionally to break up the meat, until no pink remains, about 5 minutes. Stir in hoisin, tomatoes and lime juice and bring to a boil. Simmer over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Spoon about ¼ cup of sloppy-Joe filling on the bottom half of each roll. Top with shredded lettuce and pickles and serve.
Sloppy Joe filling can be refrigerated for up to three days; reheat gently before serving.
Makes 20 sliders.
Sloppy Joe Pie
1 Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust, softened as directed on box
1½ pound bulk turkey or pork sausage
1 medium onion, chopped (½ cup)
1 cup frozen corn, thawed
1 cup chunky-style salsa
½ cup chili sauce
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
4½ ounce can chopped green chiles
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, if desired
Heat oven to 450 degrees. Unroll pie crust on ungreased cookie sheet. With sharp knife, cut into a circle to fit the top of the pie pan. Cut out squares for a checkerboard pattern. If desired, place cutouts on crust to decorate, securing each with small amount of water.
Bake 9 to 11 minutes or until crust is light golden brown.
Meanwhile, in 10-inch skillet, cook sausage and onion over medium-high heat 8 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until sausage is no longer pink. Stir in remaining ingredients except cilantro. Heat to boiling. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer uncovered 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until corn is cooked and sauce is desired consistency.
Stir cilantro into sausage mixture. Carefully place warm baked crust over turkey mixture in skillet.
Makes 4 servings.
– Adapted from “The Big Book of Pies & Tarts” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, $19.99)