Superiority Burger's Sloppy Dave

Superiority Burger has become a regular lunch spot when I'm in New York. The space and seating are no-nonsense and the food is unfussy but always creative and delicious. Their menu also happens to be vegetarian and in many cases "accidentally vegan". I picked up the cookbook after my first visit and went right for the Sloppy Dave recipe. It's essentially meatless sloppy joes that Superiority named after one of their regular customers.

Superiority Burger's Sloppy Dave is 21st century comfort food. There's some sweetness from the lightly caramelized vegetables, a bit of heat from the Korean chili flakes (substitution options offered), and the pile of frizzled onions brings it all home. I've made the recipe numerous times since buying the book and enjoy the leftovers for days.

When it comes to tofu, it would be generous to say that I'm a novice. I asked The Google some tofu 101 questions and this post includes a brief overview about what I learned. Also, don't be dissuaded by the idea of frying onions. It's not a hot mess of a project when done right. It took me a few attempts to dial things in but now I feel like a frizzle master. Including tips and cues below.

Last but not least, it's worth emphasizing how excellent this dish is for any tofu-fearing friends or loved ones in your life. The Sloppy Dave isn't "good for being vegan", it's excellent because the recipe was thoughtfully developed. Also frizzled onions.

Onions at The Garden Of... // Santa Monica Farmers Market

Tofu

As with any ingredient, there's good tofu and then there's dry, chalky, no flavor tofu. Below is a brief summary of what to look for. The article here expands upon some of these points.

Characteristic of Quality Tofu

  • The protein content of tofu corresponds to the quality of the soy milk used. Check to see that the tofu has approximately 12 grams of protein/serving.
  • Fat adds buttery notes so look for approximately 4 grams/serving or thereabouts.
  • Firm tofu (as called for in this recipe) should still have some spring and should not be dried out and crumbly.
  • The flavor should be nutty, buttery, and slightly sweet but not bitter or sour. The article referenced above suggests firm tofu can have a slight bitterness but I haven't experienced that with any that I tried.

Brands

I've used tofu made by the following companies.

  • Hodo - The Superiority Burger Cookbook recommends Hodo tofu and it's available at Whole Foods or search here for a retailer near you. I've made the Sloppy Dave with Hodo and it was delicious.
  • Meiji - I try to source locally whenever possible and discovered the Southern California company Meiji during my initial research. The stockists are here. Meiji's firmest tofu needs more draining than Hodo but still works beautifully. The flavor is really excellent.

Recipe Tips

Mastering the Frizzle

The two most important factors when frying onions strings are:

  • Make sure the sliced onions are dry. This prevents splattering and ensures that the onions won't pick up more than a dusting of flour.
  • Have a digital thermometer handy and monitor the oil temperature. Too hot and the onions will burn, too cold and they'll be oily. This is not a difficult thing to manage as long as you have the right tools.

In terms of oil amount, the cookbook suggests using 8 cups of frying oil. I use quite a bit less and fry in batches - explained further under "Instructions". It's entirely possible to make perfect frizzled onions with just a few inches of oil. You'll need a bigger pot and more oil than I suggest if you want to fry in fewer batches or have a large crowd.

Korean Chili Flake Substitutions

I used red pepper flakes when I first made Superiority Burger's Sloppy Dave. It was good, but then I tried Aleppo pepper and that was better. I ultimately ordered some Korean chili flakes and that batch was the best of all. My recommendation is to use Korean chili flakes or Aleppo pepper when possible since they both have a smokier undertone, or red pepper flakes in a pinch. All of that being said, Korean chili flakes seem to vary widely in terms of quality and flavor. Be sure to taste the flakes on their own before using them. Penzey's Aleppo pepper is a safe bet if you want to go with the middle choice.

Neat & Tidy

The time it takes to cook the vegetables (your first step) is the perfect window to prep the rest of your ingredients. This means there's no need to measure anything beyond the first 7 ingredients before dropping the finely chopped vegetables into the pan. Once you read the recipe you’ll get what I’m talking about. Saves time if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Make Ahead

This recipe is more about patiently layering the flavors than complicated steps. On that note, the tofu mixture benefits from a night in the fridge so I strongly recommend making it a day in advance.

Spice

If you're sensitive to heat, consider leaving out the cherry peppers.

Peppers at Tutti Frutti Farms // Santa Monica Farmers Market

Farmers | Artisans

I make an effort to source my food from California artisans with a special focus on the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Below is a list of the folks who contributed to this dish.

Tools

  • Digital Thermometer - I own three Thermapen digital thermometers and have distributed them between my home, the Airstream, and my mother-in-law's house. They're nimble, easy to clean, and the probe makes a perfect cake tester. I reach for it often.
  • Skimmer or Spider Strainer (4.7") - I had a spider strainer that turned into a violent little thing. Every time it went through the dishwasher, a new wire would come loose and stab me. I finally replaced it with Rösle's skimmer (they make a number of my stainless tools) and am very happy with that decision. Cook's Illustrated also rates this skimmer at the top of their list. Though it looks small online, the capacity is great. Bonus that it doesn't have those small wires that can break and cut your hand.
  • Food Slicer/Mandoline - My food slicer is also made by Rösle and I use it so often that I recently had to replace the blade. Elegant design and does a great job. I use setting 6 or 7 (clicks) for the onions.
  • Food Processor - This food processor has been a trooper for over 10 years. Works well, easy to clean, and the bowl and blade have made numerous runs through the dishwasher without issue.

Ingredients (Recipe from the Superiority Burger Cookbook)

Sauce

  • 2 pounds firm tofu, drained Note: The recipe calls for extra firm tofu but I've only been able to find firm. Just means there's a little more draining to do. The dish turns out great every time.
  • 2 large yellow onions (results in 18 ounces after prep), medium chop
  • 3 celery stalks (4 ounces), medium chop
  • 1 green bell pepper (results in 5 ounces after seeds/ribs/stem are removed), medium chop
  • 3 scallions - green and light green only (results in 2 ounces after prep), medium chop
  • 1 ½ pickled cherry peppers
  • 3 garlic cloves, rough chop
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons chile powder
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon Korean chili flakes or Aleppo pepper
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 30 ounces canned crushed tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup organic Heinz ketchup Note: I tried other brands and did not care for the flavor profile.
  • 2 packed tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 3 tablespoons Bragg Liquid Aminos
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper

Serving

  • 2 large yellow onions
  • 1 cup Wondra or rice flour (I use rice)
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • Brioche buns Note: Your bun preference will determine if this dish is vegetarian or vegan.
  • Optional Gjelina's Spicy Sweet Pickles

Instructions

Drain

Line a plate with paper towels. Pour the liquid off of the tofu, crumble, then place the tofu on the paper towels. Place paper towels on top, press gently, then put back in the refrigerator. Change the paper towels if they soak through.

Chop

  • Add the celery, green bell pepper, cherry peppers, garlic, and scallions to a food processor. Pulse 10 times, scrape down the sides, pulse 10 more times, scrape, then approximately 5-10 more pulses until finely chopped. The vegetables will give off some liquid which is fine. Transfer the chopped veggies and all of the liquid to a plate and then process the onions using the same method. Add them to the plate.
  • Rinse the food processor but don’t wash it just yet. You will use it again for the tofu.

Saute

  • Heat 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a Dutch oven or similar pot over medium-high heat. Once shimmering, add the finely chopped vegetables, all of the accompanying liquid, a generous pinch of flake-style salt, and several cranks of pepper.
  • Cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has evaporated and the vegetables are soft and starting to turn a golden color. It takes about 20 minutes (more depending on the moisture content of your produce) for the liquid to evaporate and then you’ll smell the onions starting to caramelize. Reduce the heat if the vegetable mixture starts to burn rather than caramelize. Total cooking time is 25-35 minutes.
  • While the vegetables are cooking, prep the rest of your ingredients. Don't forget to stir the pot from time to time.
  • Also while the vegetables are cooking, swap out the paper towels that the tofu is draining on if they're soaked through. I always have to swap when using Meiji.

Spice It Up

  • Lower the heat to medium and add the cumin, Korean chili flakes, chile powder, tomato paste, a pinch of kosher salt, and a few cranks of ground pepper. Combine thoroughly then cook for 10 minutes stirring frequently. Note: A rubber spatula is the best tool for this step. Each time you stir, scrape the sides and bottom of the pan and then spread everything out again into an even layer. The idea is to maximize contact between the vegetable mixture and pan. This muddy-colored mush will smell fantastic. Note: The pot will get a little crusty on the bottom and that’s fine. The mixture will start to look like a cohesive mass since the veggies are quite soft at this point.

Deglaze and Simmer

  • Add the cider vinegar to the pan and deglaze, scraping up all the bits.
  • Add the tomatoes, ketchup, brown sugar, mustard, and 1 tablespoon of Bragg Liquid Aminos (I accidentally added all of it the first time), 1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper, and bring to a simmer. Cook for 30-45 minutes (I prefer the latter), stirring occasionally. Note: If the mixture thickens too much I partially cover the pot during this step. Visual cue - If the mixture thickens to the point that it starts sticking to the pan (even though a bit of water is on top), I cover the pot most of the way. If you drag your spatula through the mixture and the wake freezes in time, it should definitely be covered. Worst case scenario you can doctor it with a little ketchup or water. I have done this with no ill effects.
  • Give the mixture a taste at the beginning of the simmering process - it’s delicious, but you’ll catch some pepper on the back of your throat and probably be able to pick up some of the individual ingredients. This is why it needs some time.

Tofu Home Stretch

  • When the sauce has been simmering for 20 minutes, start the tofu.
  • Add 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil to a large nonstick skillet heat over medium-high. When shimmering, add the drained crumbled tofu and cook until any liquid has evaporated.
  • Reduce the heat to medium and brown. Note: If you find the tofu isn't browning, split it into two batches. I was only able to achieve a light gold color when working with the full 2 pounds but it smelled and tasted great. The tofu will stick so do your best to scrape it up.
  • Once browned, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of Bragg Liquid Aminos and work quickly to scrape up the stuck bits. Cook for a few minutes until the liquid is absorbed and tofu caramelizes a bit.
  • Transfer to a plate to cool slightly.
  • In the food processor, pulse the tofu 5-6 times. Don't pulse it so much that you end up with a fine crumble.
  • Transfer the tofu to the sauce that has been simmering for 30-45 minutes at this point.
  • Simmer covered for 15 minutes.
  • If the sauce seems too thick, you can doctor it with a few squirts of ketchup or a little water. Simmer for at least 5 minutes after doing that.
  • Cool and refrigerate in an airtight container for several hours, overnight is preferable as per the "Recipe Tips".

Frizzle Master

The cookbook suggests that two onions produce enough frizzled topping for 8 servings. The portions at the restaurant are smaller than the average person probably serves at home so keep that in mind and adjust accordingly.

  • Slice the onions very thin (setting 6 or 7 on this mandoline) and then lay them in a relatively even layer on paper towels, cover with another layer of paper towels, then continue layering this way until all of the onions are sliced. Let the onions sit like this for 15 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, whisk the rice and all-purpose flours together and put in a bowl, aluminum tin, or similar. You will be dredging the onions in this mixture. Note: The cookbook suggests seasoning the flour with salt and pepper. Salt draws water out of vegetables so I choose to salt and pepper the onions after they are fried.
  • Fill a medium saucepan with a few inches of frying oil. See "Recipe Tips" regarding larger batches.
  • Place an empty plate and some paper towels next to the bowl with the flour.
  • Place an empty plate lined with paper towels next to the stove and have a small bowl of kosher salt and your pepper mill nearby.
  • Place your skimmer and digital thermometer next to the stove.
  • Heat the oil to to 350°F over a medium-high flame.
  • When the oil is just about ready, grab a handful of sliced onions and pat them completely dry with a kitchen or paper towel. Dredge them in the flour mixture and then shake thoroughly to remove all but a thin coating.

The next steps take 1 minute and 45 seconds to 2 minutes.

  • Drop the onions in the oil making sure not to overcrowd the pan. The oil will bubble vigorously.
  • Using your skimmer, move the onions around once or twice, turning them over during that process.
  • When the onions are about 15 seconds from being done, the oil will become strangely quiet as if the temperature suddenly dropped. Once the onions are golden and look a bit dull, scoop them out with the skimmer and transfer to the plate lined with paper towels. They will shine up and darken as they cool. Season immediately with salt and pepper.
  • Repeat above steps until all of the onions are fried.
  • I have stored cooled frizzled onions in an airtight container and they were pretty tasty the next day though they are best eaten not long after being made.

Serve

  • If your tofu mixture was refrigerated overnight per the "Recipe Tips", gently reheat in a covered pot.
  • Warm up your buns and then pile on the tofu mixture and frizzled onions.
  • I also like to add a small dish of Gjelina's Spicy Sweet Pickles to the table.

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