Serves 4–6 servings
If you use brown lentils and whole-wheat pasta, your dish will look, quite frankly, drab. Since we eat with our eyes, look for black or French green lentils instead of brown, and this dish will be as appealing to the eye as it is to the tongue.
1 cup green (le Puy) or black Beluga lentils, rinsed
herb bouquet: 1 bay leaf, celery branch and 2 thyme sprigs, tied together
sea salt and pepper
1 bunch spinach, the leaves cut at the stems, the base trimmed to include about 3 inches of the stems
2 large onions, sliced in 1/4-inch slices or rounds
3 tablespoons olive oil, or olive oil and butter mixed
1 scant cup chopped cilantro
1/2 teaspoon cumin, or more to taste
3 tablespoons chopped mint, optional
1 large lime, halved
8 ounces small pasta shells
Simmer the lentils in 6 cups water with the herb bouquet and 1/2-teaspoon salt until they’re very soft, but not mushy, 35 minutes or so. Cover and let stand when finished. Bring a pot of water to a boil for the pasta.
While the lentils are cooking, slice off the spinach crowns, leaving about 3 inches of the stems. Pick off any roots and funky looking parts, and set the crowns aside in a bowl of water to soak for at least 15 minutes. Discard the rest of the stems. Coarsely chop the spinach leaves, then wash them well and set aside in a colander. Vigorously rinse the crowns to get rid of any sand.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until golden, about 20 minutes. Stir in cumin, the cilantro and mint. Turn off the heat and squeeze the limes over the onions. Season well with salt and pepper.
When the pasta water boils, add salt and the pasta and cook until al dente. Scoop out the cooked pasta and add it to the lentils. Add the spinach to the pot, cook until just wilted, then scoop out and add to the lentils and pasta. Blanch the crowns for 1 minute, then scoop them out.
Toss the lentils, pasta, and spinach with half the onions and a teaspoon of oil. Taste for salt and season with pepper. Spoon the remaining onions and spinach crowns over the top, drizzle the last of oil over all, and serve.