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.
I may not be a vegetarian, but I sure act like one sometimes. Case in point: I’m probably the only meat-eater I know who goes to Umami Burger, scans the menu, and says, “I’ll have the lentils.”
But in my defense, these weren’t just any lentils. They were lentil sloppy joes, which is one of those ideas that I’m now kicking myself for not coming up with years ago. The version I had at Umami Burger was bound in a thick sauce of tomato and mushrooms, and piled high with cheddar cheese, jalapeno slices, fried onions, and sour cream. The lentils were cooked into a slightly cobbled mush, far less sloppy than I would have expected, and nicely flavored with sweet-and-sour. It was an absurdly satisfying sandwich, and not just because of the MSG. So, of course, I set out to make it at home.
This is my take on lentil sloppy joes, and I think it’s wildly successful. I kept the lentils a bit on the nubbly side, to give the filling some meaty texture. The sauce is sharpened with vinegar and sweetened with molasses, for an instantly familiar sweet-and-sour sloppy joe impact. I also ratcheted up the spices, because lentils can handle them, and cooked the mixture down until it was cohesive but not sludgy. The result is a roughly textured, deeply flavored sandwich filling that holds together just long enough to get a bite to your mouth, then collapses onto the plate.
As with any sloppy joe, these can handle just about any topping you like. But I would highly, highly recommend doing what I did when I made this for my family, and adding some pickled jalapeno rings. The sour crunch and slow-moving heat of the jalapenos added a wonderful dimension to the sandwich, and cut through some of the starchy richness of the lentils. We ate our sandwiches on pumpkin buns, which was a very smart decision: my brother pointed out that the sweetness of the bread and the spiciness of the lentils gave the whole thing a chili-and-cornbread vibe. But really, any kind of bun will work, as long as you’re prepared to get a little sloppy.
I remember the first time I had homemade dal. It was my friend Maya’s recipe, learned from her mom. I watched her make it, in a cramped and dingy dorm kitchen, shoulder-to-shoulder with two other friends chopping vegetables. It was blustery outside, and we had decided to give ourselves a break from disappointing dining hall food with a real home-cooked dinner. I’m sure we had other dishes–in fact, I’m sure I made one of the other dishes–but that dal stole the show. I’d never had anything like it: deeply and warmly spiced, flowing like soup but with a soft thickness to it. We ate it with rice, out of mismatched bowls with flimsy forks, sitting at a wobbly table under the sickly yellow lights of our dorm basement, and it was perfection.
I’ve tried making dal at home a couple of times since then, but it never ends up speaking to me the way that first bowl did. I have a tendency to over-spice and underseason, making dals that are aggressive but weirdly bland, and watery instead of souplike. For a while, I shifted my focus elsewhere. But then it got to be the doldrums of February, gray and nippy and generally dull, and suddenly I needed something spicy and fragrant and full of legumes. I needed dal, desperately, I realized one day on the train on the way home from work. So I turned to Mark Bittman–the man whose food I always want to eat–and found out something really cool.
It turns out, dal isn’t just as simple as cooking legumes with spices and hoping for the best. There’s a texture issue involved. Great dals–including the one Maya made, I’m pretty sure–are cooked and then whipped with a whisk, to break down some of the solids into starchy mush. The result is a half-pureed melange with exactly the soupy-smooth quality I remember from that dinner in college. Add that to a technique I’d already tried, making a fried onion and spice mixture called a tadka to stir in at the last minute, and you get really good dal.
This dal I cobbled together from Mark Bittman’s article rests on red lentils, which have become a staple in my pantry. I doubt this version is especially authentic, but it’s definitely flavorful, with sweet onions and smoky-crisp cumin seeds running all through it. It’s nice enough on its own, but extra-satisfying spooned over a bed of rice. And, if you have no rice in the house, it’s also delicious swirled into a bowl of plain salted oatmeal–something I just discovered tonight.
Summer is in its last flush here in California. The days are warm and clear and oh-so-slightly breezy. The farmer’s markets are still overflowing with stone fruit and tomatoes. The figs on my landlord’s trees are stubbornly waiting to ripen until the temperature really drops. But night is falling earlier now; the equinox glided by this weekend, and it’s time to face facts. Fall is creeping in.
As always, I’m half-sheepishly mourning the long hours of daylight. But I’m also excited, because fall weather means fall food. And right now, as the nights get chillier, fall food means soup. My little Ikea soup pot has been sitting on the stove all summer, quietly gathering grease spatters whenever I got up the gumption to stir-fry something. Last week I brought that poor patient soup pot back into commission, with my first soup of the season. And it’s a good one: a smooth, lightly spiced puree of cauliflower, red lentils, and roasted garlic.
This is a light-yet-lush soup, built on layers of sweetness: sharp-sweet onion, sugary-sweet apple, cabbagey-sweet cauliflower, and syrupy-sweet roasted garlic. The red lentils give a hint of body and an appealing earthiness, and a hint of cumin makes the whole thing smoky and slightly exotic. I decided at the last minute to add a big dash of turmeric–cauliflower and turmeric are great friends, and the spice played up the color of the lentils, taking the soup from muted gold to dandelion-yellow. It’s not absolutely necessary, but I thought it was a nice touch.
I especially like that there’s no dairy or starch in this soup, because the whole thing is at once comforting and nearly weightless. For a pureed soup, it’s a little on the thin-and-fuzzy side, which I happen to like. You could certainly add a small peeled and diced potato along with the lentils, or finish the soup with a drizzle of cream. I tried a dollop of yogurt in the picture below, but didn’t end up loving it–the richness of the yogurt masked the subtle sweetness of the vegetables, and blunted the spices. Call me a purist, but I prefer my soup as-is.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the lovely crispy-looking garnish on top …tune in next time for that story.
My parents recently took a trip to Istanbul. They fell in love with the city–the architecture, the sweeping water views, the riotous mingling of cultures in the streets. And they absolutely raved about the food. One of the first things my mother did when they got back was find a recipe for one of their favorite dishes they had in Turkey: lentil soup.
Normally, lentil soup is hearty, rich, winter-warming fare. The Turkish version is a cool-summer-night kind of soup: light, brothy, lemony and soft. The base here is red lentils, which are smaller and more delicate than most other kinds. When cooked, they fall apart almost completely–a disaster for salads, but ideal for soups. And unlike garden-variety green or brown lentils, red lentils turn a sunny golden color when cooked, turning a murky bottomless stew into something bright and almost refreshing.
The original recipe my mom uses is about as simple as it gets: dump all ingredients into a soup pot and simmer until cooked. The result is a simple, lighter-than-air soup, but I found I wanted a little more depth and complexity. I added back in the step of sweating the vegetables, and also toasted the spices and lentils lightly in the oil to jar the flavors awake. I’m on a huge mint kick lately, so I stirred in some fresh mint at the end, and finished it with a drizzle of olive oil. My tweaks may not be totally traditional–I’ve never been to Turkey, so I can’t vouch–but I think they make for a more flavorful soup.
My favorite element of this is that it’s a little bit interactive–the lemon doesn’t get added until the soup is on the table. Put out a platter of lemon wedges, and everyone squeezes a wedge or two into their bowl of soup. Not only does the juice stay fresh and pungent, but each person can decide how much acidity they want. It makes a pot of soup feel like a family affair.