Chef-restaurateur Mike Isabella was emphatic: "Please tell me you're not going to do a vegetarian sandwich."
We were talking about my entry into a charity tournament his team has been running for a few years. Sandwich Madness pits guest "chefs" (in the current rounds, journalists) against one another, each designing a sandwich to be sold for a month. Customers vote with their orders, with part of the proceeds going to the charity of each contestant's choice. The winners advance, bracket-style.
Of course, I told him, I would do a vegetarian sandwich because, well, I'm vegetarian. But Isabella's point was that all previous plant-based entries have been trounced in the first round. I couldn't let that happen.
So I came up with my take on one of the heartiest, messiest, most delectable sandwiches I know. It's a twist on the Mexican pambazo, stuffed with chorizo, potatoes and refried beans, on a bun that's been dipped in a chile sauce and griddled. I made the chorizo from tofu, and in consultation with G chef Mark Petonito, we added avocado and pickled cabbage, and let customers add cheese and/or an egg for an extra charge. I dubbed it the Sloppy Yo. This round, it benefits the Houston Food Bank.
Thanks to some viral vegan social media networking, it won the first round in July and is back for the semifinals through September, up against a pressed Cuban by Rebecca Cooper of the Washington Business Journal. With barely a week left for voting, the Sloppy Yo was behind but did get an unintended boost when a commenter on G's Instagram said, "Nobody wants some trash a-- vegan sandwich," and plant-based eaters rushed to its defense. Here's to the power of outrage!
Obviously, I'm hoping everybody who reads this buys one (or more), enough to put it into the finals. I've already proved Isabella wrong, but I wouldn't mind settling the question, once and for all, of whether vegetarian sandwiches can find an audience.
For those outside the area, or who might have a taste for the Sloppy Yo once the contest is over, I've streamlined the recipe for the home cook. With apologies to Pati Jinich, my friend and public television host who gave me my first taste of (and recipe for) a pambazo, this one uses store-bought instead of made-from-scratch versions of two elements: the refried beans, and the chile sauce that soaks into those buns. I replaced the pickled cabbage Petonito makes with store-bought sauerkraut mixed with salsa.
One thing I'd never take a shortcut with is the tofu chorizo. I have improved the recipe, which makes for a damned good sandwich, one you certainly don't have to be meat-free to appreciate. The Sloppy Yo is for anybody who ever thought vegetarian or vegan food isn't filling or hearty. I dare you to say that after eating one.
MAKES: 2 1/2 cups
Use it in tacos, burritos, tostadas, tamales and as a salad topper, or anywhere else you want a hit of flavorful vegan protein.
MAKE AHEAD: The tofu chorizo can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks or frozen for up to 3 months. Adapted from "Roberto's New Vegan Cooking," by Roberto Martin (Da Capo Press, 2015).
• One 1-pound block extra-firm tofu, preferably vacuum-packed rather than water-packed, such as Twin Oaks brand
• 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
• 4 large cloves garlic, minced
• 2 dried ancho or negro chile peppers
• 1 tablespoon chili powder
• 2 teaspoons kosher salt
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 1 teaspoon dried oregano
• 1 teaspoon ground cumin
• 1 teaspoon ground coriander
• 3 whole cloves or 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1/2 cup vegetable or olive oil
Spread a clean dish towel on your countertop, and line it with paper towels.
Cut the tofu into 8 equal slabs and lay them in a single layer on the paper towels. Cover with another layer of paper towel and another clean dish towel. Use your palms to press down firmly on the tofu to extract as much moisture as possible. (Don't worry if the tofu breaks or crumbles.)
Working over a medium bowl, tear the tofu into small pieces and squeeze them between your fingers to crumble into small pieces. Stir in the vinegar and garlic.
Use kitchen scissors to cut open the chiles; discard the stems and seeds. Cut the chiles into 1/2-inch pieces and place them in a food processor or a designated spice grinder. Add the chili powder, salt, black pepper, oregano, cumin, coriander and cloves; pulse to form a finely ground spice mixture. Stir all of it into the tofu until well incorporated.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, then pour in the oil. Once it shimmers, stir in the tofu mixture and cook, stirring and occasionally scraping the bottom of the pan, until the mixture becomes dark brown and crispy in parts, 12 to 15 minutes. The tofu chorizo can be used right away or chilled for long-term storage.
Nutrition | Per 1/4-cup serving: 170 calories, 6 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 14 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 260 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar
SLOPPY YO SANDWICHES
• 8 ounces red potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
• 1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, plus more as needed
• 1 cup Tofu Chorizo (see related recipe)
• 1/4 cup coarsely chopped white onion
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed
• 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 cup store-bought red enchilada sauce, such as Hatch brand
• 8 large, sturdy sandwich rolls or buns, such as kaiser rolls
• 1 cup sauerkraut, drained
• 2 tablespoons salsa
• 1 cup refried black beans (homemade or store-bought), warmed
• Flesh of 3 avocados, sliced
Put the potatoes in a medium saucepan and cover with salted water. Turn the heat to medium-high, bring to a boil and cook until tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain and let cool.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the Tofu Chorizo and cook briefly to warm it through. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until it softens, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the drained potatoes, crushing them with the back of a wooden spoon until they are mashed but still somewhat chunky. Stir in the 1/4 teaspoon of salt and the pepper; taste, and add more, as needed. Transfer to a bowl and wipe out the skillet.
Return the skillet to the stove top, over medium heat, and add the oil.
Pour the enchilada sauce into a shallow bowl. Dip each roll or bun half in the sauce, turning to coat it on all sides, including the cut sides. Working in batches, add the buns or rolls, cut sides up, to the skillet, and lightly press. Cook for a few minutes, until crisped and browned on the outside. Place the halves on individual plates, cut sides up.
Stir together the sauerkraut and the salsa in a medium bowl.
To build each sandwich, spread 2 tablespoons of the refried black beans on the cut side of the bottom roll or bun half. Top with 2 to 3 tablespoons of the Tofu Chorizo-potato mixture; next, 2 tablespoons of sauerkraut mixture, then a few avocado slices. Finish each sandwich with their top halves. Serve warm.
Nutrition | Per sandwich: 470 calories, 16 g protein, 56 g carbohydrates, 20 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1,010 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar