Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Rethinking Joe

Back in January, my friends Ashley Brown, +Ryan Stotz , +Steve Jackson and I wrapped up a great weekend with lunch at Milo's City Cafe. The specials included an array of scrambles, one of which sounded very familiar. "That sounds like a Joe's Special!" Which it did and which it was but the rest of the table looked lost. I almost never get to give Ryan the jaw-dropped "you've never heard of?" face (which he regularly greets me with) so I did it twice.

As it turns out, a Joe's Special is still very much a regional dish, which I must have picked up while living in the Bay Area. In theory, a San Francisco chef created it for a last-minute customer after the rest of the kitchen had been shut down and blah blah -- and it has become a standard for quick family dinners and late night, post-drinking sustenance. It's cheap, quick and free of exotic ingredients.

It's a simple scramble, combining ground beef, spinach, onions and eggs. It's also filling and comforting; judging by the number of recipes floating around, it's been family food for generations and the only correct recipe is Mom's. (Milo's version, incidentally, is typically excellent.) I hadn't even thought about the dish in years but after that lunch, I decided to put something together at home.

The online barrage of recipes vary only in the extra bits and the technique remains the same: soften diced onion in olive oil/butter, brown ground beef with onion, plop a thawed package of frozen and drained spinach on top, cover and heat through. Meanwhile, beat eggs with some seasoning, stir that into the spinach/meat until the egg sets and serve. Most, but not all, include garlic with the onion and it's not uncommon to sprinkle Parmesan cheese over the dish just before serving. Mixed in with the beaten eggs is some combination of Worcestershire, basil or oregano, salt, pepper and occasionally hot sauce.

I put together a reasonable facsimile of this as my first effort and it was a nice treat on a cold evening. But it is, frankly, a bit dull. I found myself slopping on a good bit of Crystal at the table to pep it up.Since my mom never fixed this dish (and would likely have ruined it anyway) I could range freely in my own version. And a casual reference in one of the recipes to "sometimes subbed sausage" gave me some direction. The Original Joe's was, after all, an Italian place in San Francisco so it made sense to use bulk Italian sausage. I got mine at New Seasons and it was surprisingly good, with lots of fennel. I switched to sweet onion, doubled the garlic and dumped the frozen spinach for fresh. While I can see the convenience for the home cook of thawing burger and spinach to feed the kids, there's no substitute for the fresh stuff.

Simple prep: dice onion, mince garlic and soften in some olive oil and butter, then bung in something like 1/3rd pound of sausage. Prior to this, rinse, dry and chop up about one bunch of spinach and lightly beat two eggs with sauces and some dried basil, salt & pepper. When the sausage has cooked, cover with the spinach and then the lid. Spinach takes very little time to cook, so then it's time to stir in the eggs and finish. Top with freshly-grated Parmesano Reggiano. Scoff it down.