Joe's Special, a San Francisco Tradition

I am by definition a really poor sleeper.  I have trouble getting to sleep and napping is elusive, so often I turn the television on to something relaxing to quiet my mind for a short period of time.  The Food Channel sometimes fills this need.  If I need to stay more alert so I can hit the floor running, I usually pick a cooking show.  To just let my mind wander and hopefully doze, I find Dinners, Drive-Ins and Dives or The Best Thing I Ever Ate are good choices.  I can close my eyes and listen, only opening them if something sounds really intriguing.

Saturday I stretched out for a 30 minute rest and The Best Thing I Ever Ate was on.  I really couldn't say what most people shared, but the segment on Joe's Special caught my attention.  I don't know if I had something like this in my 20's in the wee hours of the morning after clubbing or just heard the name somewhere a long time ago and it clicked, but it definitely sparked my interest.  Not only did I find the origins of this dish are steeped in mystery, but the recipes to make it are really varied.  The basics seem to be eggs, hamburger, onion and spinach, but from there it heads many directions. Some have only 1/2 pound of hamburger to 6 eggs, others 2 pounds to 6 eggs.  Some have fresh spinach, some frozen (not the best flavour choice but a good save time option).  The herbs used vary or are not even included and the list goes on.  The only thing everyone does agree on it that this dish was first created in San Francisco and that is still where it is mainly found.

Here are 3 variations on it's origin gleaned from different sites on the internet.

1. "The most credible tale of its origin is that is was invented late one night at San Francisco's New Joe's Restaurant to feed a hungry musician who ordered a spinach omelet but asked the chef if he could add anything to make his eggs more substantial.  The chef said he had some hamburger left over from the dinner hour.  Now all around the Bay area, you will find menus that list the Original Joe's, New Joe's, Baby Joe's and just plain Joe's."

2.  "Theories abound on the origin of Joe’s Special: it was invented to feed hungry miners during the gold rush; it was a late-night concoction favored by jazz musicians after the dance halls closed for the evening in the 1920s; it was a… who knows? Who cares? What we do know is that Joe’s Special is eggs, hamburger, onions and spinach, cooked in a skillet with seasonings and served with a glass of house red. And no fancy stemware, mind you; it has to be a juice glass or a milk glass, filled to the brim with plonk. You won’t want a refill."

3.  "Joe’s Special is a dish invented in San Francisco; it has rarely traveled outside of the Bay Area. Some say it was created as an after-hours meal at a spot called New Joe's, prepared for a group of 1920’s dance-band musicians. Others claim that it was cheap, hearty food enjoyed by the 1850's minors returning to San Francisco’s nefarious Barbary Coast. Still others proclaim that an inventive Italian chef at a place called Original Joe’s (or maybe Little Joe's) created it. Recipes vary, but they all contain the same ingredients: ground meat, chopped onion, spinach, and eggs."

I had all 3 kids coming for a mid-afternoon brunch on Sunday, so this seemed the perfect dish to serve.  It's a great hot dish that is quick to prepare and hearty to eat.  After thinking about the recipe I had seen on TV and pulling 2 recipes off the internet, I decided on the combination below.  My family has a wide range of taste preferences and this seemed to please everyone.  If I was making a smaller version for myself, I would probably zip up the flavour a bit - I can think of several possibilities - but for Sunday, this proved a good basic and hearty dish to plan the meal around.  I served it with a selection of juices, some sliced fruit and 2 types of scones (raisin and cheese).

Joe's Special
6 Servings and about 20-30 min. to prepare

6              Eggs
1 tsp         Salt
1/2 tsp      Basic and Oregano
1/2 tsp      Pepper
Several drop of hot sauce to taste (Louisiana Hot, Tabasco, etc.)
1 T           Olive Oil
1 T           Butter or Margarine
1-1/2 lbs.  Lean or Extra Lean Hamburger (This varies widely - 3/4 lb up to 2 lbs.)
1               Medium to Large Onion, Diced
2 Lg.         Garlic Cloves, minced
1/2 lbs.      Mushrooms
3/4 lbs       Fresh spinach (In a pinch can substitute 10 oz frozen, but the taste will be different)
125 grams Grated Paremsan, Romano or Asiago

Whisk 6 eggs, salt, herbs, pepper and hot sauce until well-blended. Set aside. Put Olive Oil and Butter/Margarine in large frying pan (could use 2 T of Olive Oil instead).  Saute onion and garlic for a few minutes until soft.  Add hamburger and mushrooms and cook until the meat is no longer pink, crumbling with spatula or spoon as it cooks.  Place the fresh spinach on top, turn the heat on low and cover.  Let cook for a few minutes until the spinach starts to wilt.  Take the cover off and stir the spinach into the meat mixture and let it finish wilting for just a minute or two.  Top with the grated cheese.  You have 2 choices here.  You can serve this way once the cheese melts OR you can gently stir in the cheese before serving.  I did the second, but either would work.

In the future I might try changing up the ratio of eggs and hamburger a bit.  If I ever make it for myself though, I might try a few unique variations - chorizo and diced jalapenos (Jose's Special), sweet Italian sausage and roasted red pepper (Luigi's special), you get the idea.  Like all cooking, it's about making it your own, adjusting it to your personal taste preferences. If you want to be a traditionalist, start with the hamburger, eggs, onion, spinach, salt and pepper which seem to be the basic building blocks no matter which recipe you look at.

 More than anything, I encourage you to have a few friends over and enjoy.  It's time to get back to having people in for a bite.  Restaurants are great, but enjoying food and company at home is more relaxing in the long run and a chance to really get to know each other better.