I may not be a vegetarian, but I sure act like one sometimes. Case in point: I’m probably the only meat-eater I know who goes to Umami Burger, scans the menu, and says, “I’ll have the lentils.”
But in my defense, these weren’t just any lentils. They were lentil sloppy joes, which is one of those ideas that I’m now kicking myself for not coming up with years ago. The version I had at Umami Burger was bound in a thick sauce of tomato and mushrooms, and piled high with cheddar cheese, jalapeno slices, fried onions, and sour cream. The lentils were cooked into a slightly cobbled mush, far less sloppy than I would have expected, and nicely flavored with sweet-and-sour. It was an absurdly satisfying sandwich, and not just because of the MSG. So, of course, I set out to make it at home.
This is my take on lentil sloppy joes, and I think it’s wildly successful. I kept the lentils a bit on the nubbly side, to give the filling some meaty texture. The sauce is sharpened with vinegar and sweetened with molasses, for an instantly familiar sweet-and-sour sloppy joe impact. I also ratcheted up the spices, because lentils can handle them, and cooked the mixture down until it was cohesive but not sludgy. The result is a roughly textured, deeply flavored sandwich filling that holds together just long enough to get a bite to your mouth, then collapses onto the plate.
As with any sloppy joe, these can handle just about any topping you like. But I would highly, highly recommend doing what I did when I made this for my family, and adding some pickled jalapeno rings. The sour crunch and slow-moving heat of the jalapenos added a wonderful dimension to the sandwich, and cut through some of the starchy richness of the lentils. We ate our sandwiches on pumpkin buns, which was a very smart decision: my brother pointed out that the sweetness of the bread and the spiciness of the lentils gave the whole thing a chili-and-cornbread vibe. But really, any kind of bun will work, as long as you’re prepared to get a little sloppy.
Lentil Sloppy Joes (serves 6-8)
Adapted from Food52
1 oz dried shiitake mushrooms
1 cup brown or green lentils, rinsed and picked over for debris
Water for soaking the mushrooms and cooking the lentils
1 tbsp peanut, vegetable, or canola oil
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced
1 poblano pepper, seeded and diced
1 medium carrot, diced
2 large or 4 small garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp chili powder
2 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp crushed red chile flakes, or to taste
3 tbsp tomato paste
1 (15 oz) can crushed tomatoes
1 tbsp brown sugar or molasses
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
6-8 whole grain buns or pumpkin burger buns
Pickled jalapeno slices for serving (optional, but highly recommended)
Place the dried mushrooms in a heatproof bowl, and pour over boiling water to cover. Let the mushrooms soak for 30 minutes, then drain and squeeze out as much excess moisture as possible. Reserve about 1/2 cup of the soaking liquid. Cut the stems away from the mushrooms and discard. Finely dice the mushroom caps, and set aside.
While the mushrooms soak, place lentils in a large saucepan and add enough cold water to cover by about 2 inches. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to keep the water at a steady simmer. Simmer for 25-30 minutes, or until the lentils are softened but still slightly chewy. Drain and set aside.
In a large deep-sided skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion, pepper, carrot, diced mushrooms, and a pinch of salt, and sweat for 6-8 minutes, or until the onion is translucent. Add garlic, chili powder, smoked paprika, cumin, cinnamon, and chile flakes, and cook for 1-2 minutes, or until incredibly fragrant. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, for 1-2 minutes more, or until the tomato paste is evenly mixed into the vegetables.
Add drained lentils, crushed tomatoes, reserved mushroom liquid, brown sugar or molasses, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to keep the liquid at a steady simmer. Cover and simmer for 5-10 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. Uncover and simmer for another 10-15 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened to your liking.
Remove the sloppy joe mixture from the heat. Divide the mixture between the buns, and top with a few jalapeno slices (if using). Serve warm. The leftover sloppy joe mixture will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days, or in the freezer for up to 6 months.