When it comes to food, I am a self-diagnosed split personality.
There is my Everyday Self, with her seasonal, produce-centric sensibilities.
And then there is my Other Self, anchored to a childhood of strip malls and state fairs. The self with an abiding loyalty to upscale chain restaurants and chocolate-dipped soft serve. The self who believes, irrefutably, that mint chocolate chip ice cream should possess a green, medicinal hue. The self who would voluntarily consume cheese from a can, or cool whip. Who has been known to request extra maraschino cherries... I could go on.
These sloppy joes are very a much a product of the latter Self.
Those with more refined tastes might balk at the idea of a dish that, in lieu of fresh vegetables and herbs, demands ketchup and steak seasoning. But these are, in their own way, marks of authenticity—a credit to a uniquely American archetype.
For me, this recipe is a tribute to my mother’s cooking, which, though narrow in scope, produced many memorable meals. Sloppy joes, cream of mushroom chicken, beef stew with ketchup, rice pilaf—these were among the few home-cooked dishes she kept in regular rotation.
Although her original sloppy joe recipe was lost, I culled together a basic blueprint from my own recollections (e.g. the requisite Worcestershire sauce) and a few online sources (I confess, Rachael Ray may have been consulted).
The results, cooked up for an al fresco dinner, were nearly as good as I remember. Refined? No. Attractive? Not really—though there is something beautiful about a potato roll nearly dissolved in beefy sauce.
But they were deeply nostalgic, and resoundingly tasty.
I’ve revised the recipe below to reflect the changes we made (or would make, next time). As I said, it’s more of a blueprint; most of this should be done to taste. If you prefer to use fresh garlic over the faux version, sauté the minced cloves with the onion. Serve with coleslaw, tater tots—any of those classic comfort sides.
1 1/4 pounds ground beef sirloin
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped (optional)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder (or substitute 2 minced cloves; see note)
1 can (15 ounces) tomato sauce
1/2 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 potato rolls / hamburger buns
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion (and the celery, if using) and sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Add the ground beef to the skillet. Cook, breaking up meat with a wooden spoon, until it is just past the pink stage, 6 to 8 minutes. (The goal is to cook it just barley through, so the meat doesn’t dry out.) Season with salt and pepper as you go. Add the brown sugar and garlic powder.
Add tomato sauce, ketchup, and Worcestershire sauce. Simmer until thickened, stirring occasionally, 6 to 8 minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste. Spoon meat mixture onto hamburger buns (buttered or with mayonnaise, if that's your thing) and serve.