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.