Protein Rush: Provencal Lentils with Spinach

This doesn't taste like diet food to me...

I saw my friend L at our weight training class at the Y the other day and noticed how svelte she looked. When I asked her about it she told me she's been on the South Beach diet for a few months now, and not only is she losing weight and feeling fantastic, but her eating habits have changed; like she no longer craves bowls of pasta for dinner and bagels for breakfast. Instead she and her husband (who's shed more than 20 pounds so far) are eating more lean meats and salads.

It made me think about how my own food preferences have evolved of late. While there is no denying that I will happily shovel a bowl-full of spaghetti into my pie hole, more often than not these days it'll be the whole wheat kind. My ten-pound bag of white jasmine rice sits aging in the back of the pantry closet because now I make brown rice instead.

I'd never been a dieter; until I had kids I was one of those people with a "fast" metabolism -- I could easily eat my husband under the table and never gain a pound. And don't even talk to me about low or no carb -- I become a mean, unhappy person when deprived of a large hunk of crusty bread or some kind of starchy sidekick with meals. But a few years ago
I examined a photo of myself looking bloated, pudgy and so unlike the me I used to be that I wondered "Who is that?"

I wanted to lose weight without feeling restricted by a diet. Giving up whole categories of food just wouldn't work for me -- I like eating a little bit of everything. I also believe that diets work in the long run because they force you to pay closer attention to what you put into your mouth -- something that our eat-and-run culture seems to have forgotten how to do.

I started getting on the treadmill every day, slowly working my way from 30 minutes of walking to 45 minutes of running. And although I didn't conform to any strict plan, I became aware of what foods I was eating and made what at first seemed like inconsequential changes in my habits; changes that added up to a whole lot of extra calories.

For instance, giving up coffee (since for me it doesn't seem to go down without 4 ounces of half and half) and exchanging my morning glass of orange juice for water. No second helpings at dinner time, and sometimes a bowl of low-fat frozen yogurt ( I like Haagen-Dazs) for dessert if I was still feeling hungry. For snacking, I'd grab a handful of almonds or plain, stove-topped popcorn instead of cookies and chips. And I became a whole-grain fiend -- T and the kids would erupt in a chorus of groans whenever I pulled out the whole-wheat burger buns.

The positive result was that a little more than 6 months later, I found myself free of those pesky 35 pounds of "baby weight".

So that was a few years ago, and the changes became habits that stuck with me; slowly my kids have come around to eat that icky brown wheat bread without complaint and (usually) won't break down in tears if I make lentils for dinner. My daughter A completely surprised me the other night by helping herself to seconds of this recipe, which I served with brown rice and some leftover roasted chicken.

Now L, my sister-in-law, who lost more than 60 pounds last year, has developed a craving for lots more grains in her cooking. So what could be bad about that? I plan to do more exploring in the name of "good for you" eating, as long as it stays real and delicious.

Provencal Lentils with Spinach

Makes 4 servings
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup small dark green Le Puy lentils (I buy them in bulk at Whole Foods and Dierberg's)
1 bay leaf
2 3/4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 box frozen spinach, thawed as directed on package
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and salt; cook until softened, stirring occasionally Add the lentils and bay leaf to the pan, stirring until lentils are coated with oil.

Pour in the broth and bring to a boil; lower heat to a simmer and cook, covered, until liquid is nearly absorbed, about 30 minutes. Stir in the garlic and spinach, breaking the spinach up with a spoon; cover and continue cooking 5 – 10 more minutes.

Remove from the heat; add thyme, mustard, vinegar and pepper to taste. Taste and add more salt if needed; sprinkle with pine nuts. Find the bay leaf and remove it before serving.
Serve with brown basmati or jasmine rice.

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Anh said...

beautiful recipe. you are right, this doesn't sound like a diet recipe at all.

Joel said...

Sounds delicious! I've recently started cooking with lentils as well, and I haven't quite gotten it down yet. I'm in love with provencal cuisine though, so sounds like I've got dinner plans for tomorrow under control now :)

Karen said...

Thank you,Anh, it's always a pleasure to hear from you.

Joel, thanks for stopping by, and enjoy that dinner! It makes a great leftover lunch, too.

Grant said...

I couldn't agree more with your thoughts on changing your diet. I too have changed my eating habits with very satisfying results. I also try to avoid eating foods that are overly processed and don't have preservatives.

This lentil recipe sounds right up my alley. I'm really into to whole grains right now. Do you ever try recipes with quinoa? It's just fantastic.

Nupur said...

Very inspiring post, Karen! I do OK in the healthy eating dept. on average, but am a big zero in the physical activity one. Your sentence about the treadmill is going to get me started.

Lisa said...

Mmm, I love lentils. I wish I could get the French ones around here. Need to do more investigating on that.

Wonderful recipe.

Karen said...

Grant, I really like quinoa. In fact, I just put some on my shopping list.
I'll check in with you for some good recipes...

Great Nupur! Maybe we can do a walk together around Forest Park soon.

Lisa, I can pick some up for you if you can't find them...

Liza said...

With your (and A's) inspiration I made this last week and S and I both loved it. We had enough for a second meal -- S topped his serving with a leftover scallop from a dinner out. Keep the whole grains coming.

Dani Spies said...

Mmmmm, I love lentils and this recipe sounds great. As for enjoying more nutritious foods, I have found that when you slowly add them into your diet not only do you enjoy them, but you really start to prefer them (atleast I have). It's almost like we just have to retrain our tastebuds to enjoy the deliciuosness of whole, real, non processed foods.

erin said...

i'm so glad that i found your blog through tastespotting. this is my kind of food! i'm going to try that recipe tomorrow night and can't wait. i'm going to start soaking the lentils right now!

Anonymous said...

I make a similar recipe, topped with some crumbles of goat cheese. Adds some calories and fat, but very delicious.

For quinoa, I make a red wine vinaigrette, saute sliced mushrooms in half of it while cooking quinoa plain, then pour both over baby spinach while still hot for a wilted salad, and toss with remaining vinaigrette and toasted pine nuts.

Karen said...

Liza -- Mmmm, lentils topped with a scallop. Sounds so S-like.

Dani, I totally agree. I've seen how my kids' tastebuds have been captured by fast food like McD's, and how to them nothing tastes as good.

Hi Erin! Thanks for stopping by -- enjoy your lentils.

Anonymous, I think goat cheese makes anything taste good. Your quinoa recipe sounds so good -- thanks for sharing.

Kalyn said...

Hi Karen,
Good job on the healthy eating habits. However one sentence in your post made me wonder if you might not really understand the South Beach Diet when you refer to "eliminating whole categories of food." South Beach does allow plenty of healthy, complex carbs except for the first two weeks of the diet. What are restricted are "empty" carbs like sugar and white flour, as well as a few very high carb vegetables like potatoes. Whole grains are encouraged, and complex carbs like beans and lentils are even allowed for phase one. So your lentil dish is perfectly South Beach Diet friendly, and it does sound very tasty.

Ms. Glaze said...

I was absolutely carb free until I moved to Paris. When in Rome do as the Romans right? Well, those darn croissants just call my name everytime I walk by. Great lentil recipe, I'll give it a shot!

Karen said...

Kalyn, I didn't mean to refer to South Beach as restrictive, more other diets like Atkins, etc.

Actually, the foods on SB seem to be what I have naturally gravitated to.

Ms. Glaze, yes EXACTLY! If I were in Paris, you can bet I wouldn't pass on a croissant either. Maybe a once a week only treat, if you can stand it!

Susan said...

I agree with you--it's a lifestyle choice. Eating moderately and exercising are what keep us healthy. As for lentils, I don't think i go a week without eating them, so you'll know I'll be trying this dish!