Spiced lentil turnovers

It’s phyllo central over here. Something about that golden, flaky crackle-crunch is really hitting the spot right now. And if I feel myself burning out on layered pies, there’s always the trusty triangle.

This particular recipe was my contribution to an Ethiopian-food potluck. It’s a riff on lentil sambusas, one of my favorite things to order at an Ethiopian restaurant. Picture an Indian samosa if that’s more familiar, but smaller and lighter, with a filling of gently spiced lentils. I love a good samosa, but the combination of pastry and potato always makes me feel like I’ve eaten a brick. Not so with sambusas–the best ones I’ve had are earthy but delicate, with a thin-and-crisp shell.

Normally, sambusas in restaurants are deep-fried. But I hate the mess and hassle of deep-frying, so I decided to bake my sambusas instead. As always, the challenge when turning a deep-fried food into a baked one is texture–it’s hard to really mimic that great golden crunch. Of everything I’ve tried, phyllo’s flaky crispness gets the closest.

I started with the classic triangle instructions on the back of the phyllo box, and added a sambusa-inspired filling of lentils and spiced, sauteed onions. You could make the filling all in one pot, but I decided to cook the lentils on their own and then fold in the spiced onion mix to keep the textures and flavors distinct. I used ordinary, cheap green lentils, but beluga or Puy lentils would be lovely since they keep their shape when cooked. Make sure to use plenty of butter or oil–it’s what gives these little pastries their color and crunch.


Spiced Lentil Turnovers (makes about 2 dozen turnovers)

Filling adapted from Food52

Note: You can adjust the amount or type of chile to taste. For me, a serrano pepper provides a nice medium-spicy kick. Use a jalapeno for a milder filling, or a habanero or bird’s eye chile if you like it hot.

1 cup green lentils, Puy lentils, or black (beluga) lentils

3 cups water

1 tsp coarse salt, plus more to taste

2 tbsp clarified butter or neutral cooking oil, plus more for brushing the phyllo

1 medium yellow onion, finely diced

2 large or 4 small garlic cloves, minced

1 serrano pepper, seeded and minced (see note)

1 tsp minced fresh ginger

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground cumin

1/8 tsp ground cardamom

Pinch of ground cloves

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 roll frozen phyllo dough (from a 16-oz package), thawed

In a medium saucepan, combine lentils and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to keep the liquid at a steady simmer. Simmer, uncovered, for 20-30 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. Drain off any excess liquid, then return the lentils to the saucepan and stir in 1 tsp salt. Cover and let stand off the heat for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tbsp clarified butter or oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, for 8-10 minutes, or until the onion is translucent and starting to brown. Add garlic, serrano pepper, ginger, and spices. Cook, stirring, for 30 seconds to a minute, or until fragrant. Transfer the onion mixture to the pan with the cooked lentils and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set the mixture aside and let it cool to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 375º F and position a rack in the middle. For easier cleanup, line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil.

Unroll the phyllo sheets and cover them with a slightly damp towel or a piece of plastic wrap to keep them from drying out. Lay out a sheet of phyllo on a work surface, and brush it all over with clarified butter or oil. Lay down two more sheets on top of the first one, brushing each one with butter or oil before adding the next. Use a sharp knife or a pizza cutter to cut the layered phyllo widthwise into 4 strips. Working with one strip at a time, place 1 tbsp of filling at the end closest to you. Fold one corner of the phyllo diagonally over the filling to form a triangle, then fold again in the other direction. Keep folding the dough over itself until you reach the end of the strip. (If this is a little hard to visualize, here’s a handy diagram–you’re making medium-sized triangles.)

As you finish folding each triangle, brush it all over with butter or oil and place it on the lined baking sheet. Repeat the layering, filling, and folding process until you run out of either filling or phyllo. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the turnovers are golden and crisp all over.

Remove the turnovers from the oven and let cool for at least 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Make ahead/leftovers: The filling can be made up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container. Once the turnovers are assembled, you can freeze them and then bake them directly from frozen. Lay the turnovers in a single layer on a baking sheet, freeze them until solid, then transfer to a zip-top bag and store in the freezer for up to 4 months. When baking frozen turnovers, add 5-10 minutes to the baking time.

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