Not Your Mom’s Sloppy Joe

What could possibly be more American than the sloppy joe – lots of things, actually. While the iconic loose meat sandwich has origin claims all over the lower 48, the straight skinny is that this messy gem came from Havana, Cuba – And you can rest assured that this is not your mom’s sloppy joe.

Those of us who’re old enough will remember stuff like the Manwich from the 1960s, (and other atrocities). Go back farther though, and hints of the true roots come to light – Names like ’Spanish hamburger’, and ‘minced beef Spanish style’. American origin stories focus on the Midwest, where loose meat sandwiches have been popular since the mid nineteenth century. Sioux City, Iowa and an ephemeral cook named Joe back in the 1930s is about as good as the story gets – Yet there was direct evidence out there – like a 1944 ad from the Coshocton, Ohio Tribune that read, ‘Good Things to Eat’ says ‘Sloppy Joes’ – 10c – Originated in Cuba,’ – and there you have it.

There is, of course, the world famous Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West, Florida – That joint sells upward of 50,000 of the iconic sandwiches annually – yet they are not the original. That would be Jose Garcia Rios’ Havana Club, a tiny bar attached to a grocery store in Havana, Cuba, that opened back in 1918. The store sold a lot of seafood, and the floor was eternally covered in ice and packing materials – As such, locals started referring to Jose G. as Sloppy Joe, because Habaneros truly love fond but slightly barbed nicknames – and it stuck. According to Mark Kurlansky in his wonderful book, Havana – A Subtropical Delirium, ‘Sloppy Joe’s specialized in a sandwich of the same name that was a perfect expression of Havana at the time. It was the traditional Cuban dish picadillo, served on an American-style hamburger bun,’ and that is where it all began.

Cuban sofrito

Cuban picadillo is different from what you’re likely familiar with. It’s ground or shredded meat powered by Cuban sofrito, the signature aromatic blend of onion, garlic, and bell pepper, often with other veggies and herbs added as the cook sees fit. If you google ‘Cuban picadillo,’ you’re more likely than not to find a recipe that includes ground beef, potatoes, onions, garlic, cumin, bell peppers, white wine, tomato sauce, raisins, olives and capers. The reason that this iteration is so prolific isn’t necessarily because it’s the most authentic, but because it’s the most copied – often word for word, by different posters. Picadillo is a core Cuban dish, and as such, everybody makes it, and nobody makes it the same way.

Kurlansky included this passage on the subject in his book – ‘Below is the recipe as the bartender (at the Havana Sloppy Joe’s), gave it to me, translated into English. But first you have to make a picadillo, so here is a recipe for picadillo given to me more than thirty years ago at an equally famous Havana bar, La Bodeguita del Medio: Grind meat (beef) and marinate it with salt and lime juice, or vinegar. Make a sofrito with minced garlic and onion sautéd with the ground meat. This should be done slowly. Now the Sloppy Joe: Saute picadillo in oil: add black pepper, onion, garlic, cumin, bay leaf, and tomato sauce, and finish with demi-glace sauce. Add salt to taste and when it is cooked, add (green) olives. Keep on medium heat for 5 minutes to finish. Serve over a hamburger bun.’

That struck me as a much sounder base to work from. It’s safe to say that, if we have stuff we like at hand, any Cuban cook would encourage us to add some – to a point. Cuban cooking is fundamentally simple, not always because of a dearth of ingredients, but because that’s how they do things – When ingredients are good, it’s best to allow them to shine. As for process, I like it a lot – Most folks will want to treat the dish as a slow cooked stew, and that’s fine – but I really dig doing the low and slow with the meat first, adding that carnitas cooking step of lightly frying the beef in oil before final assembly, and then using reduced, fresh beef stock as a stand in for the demi glacé.

The carnitas step to Cuban sloppy joe

Here then is my swing at a Cuban Sloppy Joe. We use a slow cooker here – I think you get brighter, more distinct flavors that way, since the potent ingredients go in at the end of the cooking process. The recipe is bulked up beyond what you’d need for a single meal, because leftovers like these are a thing of beauty. Note that there are no hot chiles this dish. I’ve been told more than once that most Cubans don’t really do a lot of hot food, rarely using hot chiles. They do use onion and garlic generously, which adds plenty of spicy notes. They also don’t salt things nearly as much as we do up here in el Norte – This recipe reflects those predilections. 

Finally, there’s no reason at all not to serve this over rice with a side of beans the first night – That would be more in keeping with Cuban cooking than the hamburger bun – 24 hours later, the mix is much firmer and, frankly, better than it was on day one – That’s the time to bring out the buns.

Urban’s Habanero Sloppy Joe

Urban’s Habanero Sloppy Joe

This is an all day low and slow dish, so plan accordingly.

3 Pounds Beef Roast, (Chuck, Rump, Cross Rib, or Bottom Round will all shred nicely)

1 large yellow Onion

2 mild Anaheim Chiles

1 Green Bell Pepper

2 stalks Celery

2 Carrots

7 fat cloves Garlic

1 bunch fresh Cilantro

2 14 oz cans diced Tomatoes (if it’s tomato season, absolutely use fresh – but you’ll need 8-10 big ones)

1 Cup stuffed Manzanillo Olives

2 Cups Beef Broth

2 Tablespoons Banana Vinegar (Cider vinegar will work fine)

2 fresh Limes

2 Tablespoons Non Pareil Capers with Brine

2 teaspoons Mexican Oregano

1 teaspoon Salt

1/2 teaspoon Cumin

3-4 Turkish Bay Leaves

5-6 twists of ground Black Pepper

4 Tablespoons Avocado Oil for cooking

Low and slow cross rib roast

Peel and trim onion. Smash and skin 2 cloves of garlic. End trim celery and carrots. Rough chop half the onion, the celery, and the carrots.

Place beef roast, onion, garlic, celery, carrots, and a quarter teaspoon of whole cumin in a slow cooker. Add a three fingertip pinch of salt and a couple of bay leaves.

Cover the roast about 3/4 way with water and set the cooker on low – Cooking will require around 8 hours for most devices. 

Keep an eye on the water level and don’t let it drop much – I keep it pretty much where I started at throughout the cooking process.

Check internal temperature of the beef after 7 hours of cooking – You’re after 160° F. When you reach that, pull the roast out of the cooker and let it rest for 15 minutes. Retain the beef broth in the cooker.

While the beef is cooling, prepare your mise en place for everything else – An assortment of small bowls or ramekins is really indispensable in a kitchen – If you don’t have a bunch – get ‘em.

Always get your mise together

Dice remaining onion. Smash, peel, end trim, and mince remaining cloves of garlic. Stem, end trim, and dice Anaheims and bell pepper. Chop 1/2 packed cup of cilantro.

Transfer one can of tomatoes to a mixing bowl and process to a sauce with a stick blender. Leave the other can diced, and retain the liquid.

Measure out and either rough chop or quarter the manzanillo olives, as you prefer.

Measure out 2 tablespoons of capers with brine.

Halve the lime and squeeze out 1/4 cup of juice. Retain any extra, cut into 1/8ths for garnish.

Measure out 2 tablespoons of vinegar.

Measure out 2 teaspoons of oregano. 

Measure and grind 1/4 teaspoon of cumin.

In a large sauté pan or skillet over medium heat, add a tablespoon of oil and heat through. Add the onion, chiles, and bell pepper, and sauté until the onion begins to turn translucent, about 3-5 minutes.

Add the garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about 1-2 minutes.

Turn off the heat under those veggies and let them sit.

Hand shredded beef for Cuban sloppy joe

Beef shredding time – You can do this by hand, or with two forks, which I find easier – You need pretty stout flat wear, and you should hold them close to the tines. You can cut things to length if you like, then shred with the grain of the roast.

In a large cast iron skillet over medium high heat, add 3 tablespoons of oil and heat through.

The carnitas step to Cuban sloppy joe

When the oil is nice and hot, add the beef and let if fry for a minute or so before flipping it – You want to get a thin coating of oil to char slightly.

Once the beef has been evenly fried, (about 3-4 minutes), add a cup of stock from your slow cooker and deglaze the pan. Scrape all the naughty bits off the bottom. Chances are good most of this cup will boil away, which is OK – add another and let that heat through until it’s simmering.

Add the can of diced tomatoes and the can you sauced, and stir to incorporate. 

Real deal Cuban Sloppy Joe

Once the mix is simmering again, add the sautéd veggies and a three finger pinch of salt, a few twists of ground pepper, and 2 Bay Leaves – stir those in thoroughly. 

Reduce the heat to maintain a bare simmer and allow to cook for about 30 minutes.

Urban’s Habanero Sloppy Joe

Add the cilantro, olives, capers, oregano, lime juice, vinegar, and cumin – stir to incorporate.

Let cook on a bare simmer for another 30 minutes.

Serve hot, and try not to eat it all the first night.

Again, I’ll recommend you do rice and beans as we did the first night, and go for buns on day two – The flavors have thoroughly married and it’s that much better, as well as tighter then.

What makes Lawry’s seasoning salt tick?

What is Lawry’s Seasoning Salt? To tell the truth, I had no idea, and didn’t have any in the house. Then someone told me that this stuff was the seasoning for the dreaded Taco Time Mexi Fries – I happen to like those evil little things, so I bought some Lawry’s to try it out. While it turned out that my source was most definitely mistaken, the blend does have a nice flavor profile, and it’s rather venerable stuff – So I thought, why not dive in and see what makes Lawry’s seasoning salt tick?

Real Deal Lawry’s - Mysterious in several ways
Real Deal Lawry’s – Mysterious in several ways

The blend came to life back in 1938, as seasoning for prime rib beef at Lawry’s namesake restaurant in Beverly Hills, (Which is still around, by the way, and there’s a good few more branches now). Described as a, ‘unique blend of salt, spices and herbs,’ it’s a proprietary blend, (just like the stuff that graces those Mexi Fries). While the company ain’t givin’ it all up, they go so far as to list, ‘SALT, SUGAR, SPICES (INCLUDING PAPRIKA AND TURMERIC), ONION, CORNSTARCH, GARLIC, TRICALCIUM PHOSPHATE (PREVENTS CAKING), NATURAL FLAVOR, PAPRIKA OLEORESIN (FOR COLOR). Contains no MSG.’ It’s an interesting mix, not the least because of the absence of ground pepper.

Now, that paprika oleoresin is nothing more than an oil-soluble extract from chiles – a very common coloring agent, so no big deal there. Of course, if you want to dissect this stuff to recreate it, you need more than just ‘spices, including…’ and ‘natural flavors’ to work from – But that’s not as easy to come by as you’d think – Obviously, companies protect their proprietary recipes carefully, and sometimes they don’t tell you what’s in there because they don’t particularly want you to know – Turns out both are the case with this stuff.

To dissect stuff like this, what I do is open the carton and pour it into a bowl so I can look at it, feel it, smell it, and start getting a better idea of what’s actually in there. With the Lawry’s it wasn’t as easy as some others I’ve dug into – The mix is pretty fine, making it harder to isolate and taste individual components. I’ll do anything from vibrating the blend different ways to encourage separation, to sifting and picking directly from the mix. And on top of all that, I certainly look online to see what others might have found before me.

As far as the latter pursuit goes, it turns out that there are two slightly different wanna be versions of the blend out there – and then a whole lot of people just copied one or the other verbatim. What I got out of it was a pretty good baseline mix, and three very cool little mysteries that absolutely no one had really properly discussed, let alone figured out – So, more about that.

What I dissected, tasted, saw, and smelled tells me that the base mix for this stuff is salt, sugar, celery leaf, paprika, onion, garlic, cayenne, turmeric, and cornstarch – A pretty standard dry rub mix, albeit the turmeric and cornstarch are interesting – More on that shortly. The tricalcium phosphate is there to prevent caking, and it’s the exact same stuff I use it all our blends – It’s basically a purified, powdered rock, and occurs naturally in cow’s milk. That pretty much takes care of the spices, so on to those little mysteries I mentioned.

When you look up ‘what’s in Lawry’s seasoning salt,’ you’ll find all the stuff I mentioned, but when you try to dig deeper, you’ll not find very much. Looking into the ‘natural flavor’ thing was the least fruitful of all, but I did get there, and the answer shows in spades why the search was so difficult. A very persistent blogger, who loved the stuff, became concerned enough to start asking uncomfortable questions. She ended up talking to the Consumer Affairs department at McCormick, the maker of the blend. After significant hemming and hawing, they ponied up that the ‘natural flavors’ were in fact partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil – AKA, undisclosed trans fats. Said blogger then went to the FDA to ask how such things could be left undisclosed, or euphemistically termed ‘natural flavors’ – The FDA rep’s response was that ‘the oils are natural.’ When the blogger pointed out how hydrogenation pretty much trumps their initial state, she was told she was ‘free to not buy the product if she wished’ – Your Federal gummint in action, folks… in any case, yes, I think the trick they pulled is bullshit, but it is what it is. So, mystery #1 is basically a great reason to engineer a better analog at home.

The next What’s That In There For item is cornstarch. Innocuous enough, but not a thing you see in a lot of seasoning blends – So what is the deal? Internet musings focused on cornstarch as a thickener, or as aid to developing a nice crust on a protein. Both are true enough for the stuff, but this is not the case in the trace amounts it’s found within this blend. What I believe cornstarch is doing here is much more subtle and a very neat trick indeed – It’s called velveting. In certain Chinese regional recipes, a small amount of cornstarch is added to the sauce for a protein, most often as part of a marinade. When the protein is subsequently cooked, the cornstarch combines with meat juices to form a thin barrier layer – This layer acts to seal moisture into the meat, and results in a notably juicier final product. It’s especially effective for high heat cooking, like grilling, broiling, or stir frying. Cool mystery #2. 

The third cool thing is turmeric. As mentioned, this isn’t an ingredient you see much in seasoning blends, and it may just be the je ne sais quoi that sets Lawry’s apart. Turmeric, Curcuma longa), is a rhizome, like ginger, and in fact it’s in the same family, Zingiberaceae. These days you can sometimes find it in mainstream grocery stores – I’ve found it Fred Meyer more than once. It looks much like ginger on the outside, but when you slice into it, there’s that gorgeous dark orange colored flesh, and a scent that is to me much deeper and more nuanced than its more popular cousin. While ginger is all about heat and power, turmeric is softer and subtler – bitter, peppery, musty, and mustardy beneath the almost carroty primary notes – It’s stunningly good stuff, and it’s been around in Asian medicine and cooking for a long time. While I noted that it’s not common in spice blends, that meant not common here – For my mind, the most glorious example of turmeric in a mix comes from India and North Africa, where you’ll find it mixed with curry, cumin, coriander, cardamom and cinnamon, or maybe black pepper, clove, and nutmeg – Lots going on in those things.

Any way you shake it, Lawry’s is a pretty cool blend. While I couldn’t find who it was who initially developed this blend, I’ll tell you this – Between the cornstarch and the turmeric, I’d bet that the Chef was either Asian, or at least versed in Asian cuisines, and we’re the richer for their contribution. This stuff is well worth using as a basis for experimentation and development into something personal to you, which is exactly what I did. Below you’ll find my swing on the blend, tweaked to my liking, but true to its roots – It’s got quite a bit less sugar, and less salt overall than the original, with a couple of other twists. You’ll notice that the original stuff is quite red – That’s the paprika oleoresin, which again is nothing more than a colorant. I subbed annatto seed, which adds a bit of color, and an earthy note as well. Give it a try and then go wild.

Mine versus the original - The orange is all about the oleoresin coloring, frankly
Mine versus the original – The orange is all about the oleoresin coloring, frankly

Urban’s Lawry-Like Blend

1⁄3 Cup fine Kosher Salt

1 Tablespoon Smoked Paprika

2 teaspoons Bakers Sugar

2 teaspoons dried Celery Leaf

1 1/2 teaspoons Turmeric

1 1⁄2 teaspoons Arrowroot

1 teaspoon Tricalcium Phosphate

1 teaspoon granulated Onion

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

1/4 teaspoon ground Chile (I used Tabasco’s, use whatever you like)

Combine all ingredients and mix well.

My Lawry’s inspired blend
My Lawry’s inspired blend

Pour into a single mesh strainer over a second bowl and run the blend through, discarding anything that won’t pass.

Store in an airtight glass container.

Very Cool Guide to Common Veggies

The Plant Guide is a fun site, with some great history pieces
The Plant Guide is a fun site, with some great history pieces

A friend turned me on The Plant Guide, a pretty cool site with some fine gardening tips and tricks. They also have a definite bent for the history of things, just as we do here, including a very cool bit on the origin and history of common veggies and fruit.

A fair amount of this falls into the not what you expected category, and can definitely lead to some interesting further exploration.

check out the veggie history bit here.