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Sloppy Joes

Sloppy Joes

Another take on a childhood favourite is this recipe for lentil sloppy joes. The memories of this comforting sandwich hark back to my elementary school days in Damascus where Sloppy Joes* were made and sold by the good ladies of the PTA out of a little library window. The weekly Sloppy Joe sale took place on a Friday, the last day of the scholastic week and to boot, a half day when classes ended at 12:30. Clearly a celebratory slot, and parents and children would congregate by the said library window to socialise and celebrate the beginning of the weekend.

As our children are growing and schools are constantly at the back of our minds, I find myself drifting into memories of my own childhood and school experience. I enjoyed school, although in recounting stories of school times, my mother characterises my experience of school as “purely a social occasion”.  I really want my children to enjoy school as well. While Sloppy Joes are not written into a curriculum, they nevertheless remain a fond memory for all of my co-students of that era, and at least for those that I share that memory with, was “the” regular social happening. 

I, of course, cannot replicate these experiences for my children, nor do I want to, just as I do not seek to replicate the recipe for Sloppy Joes. These celebrated sandwiches were symbolic beyond the gathering of friends, and for many of the students it was also something of a treat because it was so different from the regular Syrian fare, something foreign (and to make the treat even more special for us in the closed-off Syria of the mid 1980s, this was American! A treat!). These Sloppy Joes brought right up to date remain a treat, even if different from the tradition.

This recipe does not contain any oil and the only source of fat comes from walnuts. The lentils that we used are green as they retain a nice crunch once cooked. We used leeks as they were included in our weekly vegetable bag, but a medium sized onion would work just as well. Paprika and cumin give this dish a nice smokey flavour, use less for a mellower taste. To add to the green credentials of the dish we added some rucola to the sandwiches as they were served. Little Boy Green loved it, partly because he helped me to prepare it, mainly by asking many questions: “why, why, why?” and also because of the crunch of the lentils and walnuts.

*For the uninitiated among you - a Sloppy Joe is a thing of quintessential American school dinner-ness, sort of America’s answer to a Shepherd’s Pie. It is basically Bolognaise sauce on white bread. A dream for those who love a meat sauce but wish to eschew the accompanying pasta. You laugh, but my American side grandfather used to take white bread with him to Chinese restaurants to be certain he would get a real meal. Mrs Green once worked with a young Englishman whose first pasta experience was at a friend’s house at age 15 (spaghetti- a revelation), and who regularly referred to pasta as “ethnic food”.

Ingredients: (fills roughly 12 bread rolls)

  • 1 X medium leek
  • 1 X stick of celery
  • 1 X red pepper
  • 200g (1 cup) French green lentils (any lentil variety would work, but may not provide for the same texture)
  • 500g (2 cups) tomato passata
  • 1 litre (4 cups) water, divided as below
  • 2 X tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 X tbsp low-salt bouillon
  • 1 X tbsp salt
  • 1 X tbsp cumin
  • 1 X tbsp paprika
  • Handful of chopped walnuts (add more if the lentils have become soft)


  • Dice the leek, red pepper and celery and add to a large pot with the bouillon and 250ml (1 cup) of water. Bring to boil and then gently simmer for 5 minutes.
  • Add the remaining ingredients except for the walnuts. 
  • Return to the boil and then simmer uncovered for 30-40 min, until a thick stew has been reached.
  • Add the chopped walnuts and then wait until the stew is cool to the touch.
  • Slice the bread rolls, scoop out some of the softer part of then bun to make a little bowl to ladle the stew into.
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