My first encounter with the Sloppy Joe was at my elementary school lunch counter where giant cans of sloppy joe mix were dumped into beat-up chafing dishes before being unceremoniously ladled into a crumpled hamburger bun. It may not sound like much of a lunch, but with other options like leathery turkey smothered in mucus-like gravy, and spaghetti with meat sauce that looked more like rusty dirt with soggy worms poking out of it, the days the lunch ladies were dishing out Sloppy Joes were culinary nirvana to my six year old self.
There are various creation myths around the Sloppy Joe, but all signs point to its creation sometime in the first half of the last century. Some theories posit it’s an evolution of the Maid-Rite loose meat sandwich. Others opine it’s a product of food rationing during the war, when meat had to be stretched as far as possible.
Whatever its origins, the Sloppy Joe is a delicious hot mess, and it’s a comfort food from my formative years that I sometimes crave. There’s something innocently marvelous about biting into an airy bun and having the sweet meaty filling spurt out of the corners of your mouth, leaving you with a saucy grin. But just like my office, there’s a difference between sloppy and slovenly, which is why I prefer making it with pulled beef rather than ground meat.
While this hot sandwich is never going to qualify as health food, by making it from scratch, you can sweeten it with carrots and unrefined sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup laden ketchup. It doesn’t take that much more work, and for your pittance of effort, you get a delicious wholesome meal without a lot of unnecessary additives.
Heat a pressure cooker over medium-high heat until hot. Add the oil then add the beef in a single layer. If they don't all fit in a single layer you may have to brown it in batches. Fry one side until a brown crust forms and then flip them over and brown the other side.
Transfer the browned beef to a bowl and set aside.
Add the onions, bell peppers, carrots, garlic and sugar to the pot and use the liquid released to scrape up the browned beef juices off the bottom of the pan.
Turn down the heat to medium and sautée the vegetables, stirring regularly until the onions are soft and the whole mixture is a medium brown color (10-15) minutes.
Return the meat and any collected juices to the pan. Add the canned tomatoes and crush them up. Fill the can with water and add the water to the pan. Then add the tomato paste, vinegar, thyme, salt, pepper, chili powder, and ground cumin.
Seal the pressure cooker lid and set to high pressure. Bring the pot up to pressure over high heat (it will start whistling), and then turn down the heat enough so it barely maintains a constant whistle. Cook for 30 minutes and turn off the heat, allowing the pressure to drop naturally before opening the lid.
If you're not using a pressure cooker, just simmer the mixture for 1 1/2 hours, or until the meat is fall apart tender.
Once the beef is tender, skim off as much excess fat as you can. Use a potato masher to shred the beef. If there's still too much liquid, simmer the mixture uncovered until it's the right consistency.
When the sloppy joe mixture is done, taste it and adjust the salt, sugar and vinegar until you're happy with the taste. Serve hot in a hamburger or hotdog bun.
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