A plant-based twist on a summer classic, these red lentil sloppy joes pack in just as much flavor (and protein) as the original – but without all the funky extras.
For many, Sloppy Joes are a summertime tradition that evokes fond memories of their youth. The first time I had one was at summer camp, but at the time I didn’t know they were called “sloppy joes”. It was just the sandwich they served on Mystery Meat Mondays.
In the dining hall, the counselors would keep us guessing about what was actually in the tangy meat slurry sandwich. With smiles on their faces, they offered up a variety of endangered animals as possibilities: pandas, bald eagles, rhinoceroses. But even for a summer camp in Connecticut, we knew it was doubtful they had a budget for black market meat like that. In the end, referencing a Simpson episode, we concluded it was most likely a blend of circus animals. Some real genuine grade F meat.
Looking back, I have a lot of questions. About my childhood, that summer camp, and more to the point, this sandwich: the Sloppy Joe. Yes, it was delicious, but my initial perception of it was framed by suspicion and apprehension – like it was some Sweeny Todd concoction. As an adult, I later learned Sloppy Joe’s are made with regular ground beef – which, in today’s highly processed meat industry, is probably the real mystery meat.
So when Megan suggested we make red lentil sloppy joes, I felt it was a good chance to reshape my perception of the dish. Building a recipe from scratch that you’ve only ever had from a can or were served at some ghoulish summer camp, can be a surprisingly productive experience.
This recipe bypasses a lot of the mystery in exchange for whole foods and readily available spices. Red lentils, yellow onion, Anaheim pepper, and garlic comprise the hearty base of the dish. The flavors are then amplified with tomato paste, apple cider vinegar, maple syrup, mustard, chili powder, and vegan Worcestershire sauce. All of which are pretty clear and easy to understand. Except, of course, for the Worcestershire (wooster-shire) sauce. But we’ll leave its mysterious origins for another day.
When simmered down, all of these ingredients blend together to make a hearty mix that tastes absolutely delicious between two hamburger buns. Enjoying it at a campsite was great, but knowing with certainty it didn’t contain a single kangaroo or silverback gorilla was even better.
So whether you want a more transparent and honest connection with your sloppy joes, or just want something easy and delicious to make around the campfire, give this red lentil version a try the next time you go camping.
‣ There are a handful of vegan Worcestershire sauces on the market. Our local store carries this one. They even have a gluten-free version! If you’re not vegan/vegetarian, you can use regular Worcestershire sauce instead.
‣ If your grocery store doesn’t carry Anaheim peppers, you can sub with green bell pepper.
‣ If you’re in the PNW, see if you can find Dave’s Killer Bread “Million Dollar Buns”. They are organic & whole-grain while still being so soft and fluffy, and they’re pretty high in protein, too. (#notsponsored)
Red Lentil Sloppy Joes
- Large Pot
- 2 buns
- In a medium pot, heat the oil over medium heat and add the chopped onions and Anaheim pepper. Saute until soft and the onions just begin to turn golden, 3-4 minutes. Add tomato paste and saute for a minute, then add the garlic and cook 1 minute.
- Add the red lentils and 1 ½ cup water to the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are pretty tender but not falling apart.
- Add mustard, maple syrup, apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire, chili powder, and salt. Stir to combine. Simmer until the sauce thickens a bit, 3-5 minutes more.
- Serve on toasted buns with whatever toppings and sides you love!