A few months ago, my friend, Jen, was one short week into the Whole30 program when she found herself in need of some inspiration. She was desperate for satisfying recipes that would get her through the following 23 days.
For those who aren’t familiar, Whole30 is a month-long reset that calls for the elimination of certain food groups because they may have a negative impact on the body. (For example, dairy may cause indigestion in one person while red wine or certain additives may be the culprit behind someone else’s headaches or itchy eczema.) So while most fruits and vegetables, meat, seafood, eggs, healthy fats, and spices are permitted, there’s an extensive list of off-limits foods. For one whole month, those who commit to the program forego dairy, added sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, and ingredients like carrageenan, MSG, and sulfites.
After familiarizing myself with the nuances of the program, I started thinking through my long list of recipes for meals my friend and her family might enjoy. It became a fun challenge and I must have emailed her twenty recipes, some of which were vetoed because a prohibited ingredient slipped through or because it contained an ingredient that would not be happily regarded by one or more family members.
Eventually, we chose six recipes and planned a day of cooking to stock both fridge and freezer. The two dishes that rose to the top and that Jen claims to have made over and over were a buffalo chicken spaghetti squash casserole and the following Asian-influenced meal.
I started making this recipe for my family after enjoying a similar restaurant version five or six years ago, and its wonderful flavor made it a fast favorite. When cooked down, the minced mushrooms enhance the meaty flavor and go undetected by my mushroom-averse 15-year-old. The optional dipping sauce adds a restaurant-quality touch but can be skipped when time is short.
During her Whole30 challenge, my friend omitted the dipping sauce because it contains a small amount of honey and replaced the soy sauce with coconut aminos. The latter condiment has a deep, savory flavor that’s much like soy sauce, but with a touch of sweetness and less salt. It’s made from a blend of aged coconut sap and sea salt and can be found in the natural foods aisle of most large grocery stores as well as specialty stores (like Lemon Street Market and Rhubarb’s Market if local). Because it’s naturally soy- and gluten-free, it’s a great option for those with allergies and has long been embraced by the Paleo community.
After Jen successfully completed her month-long challenge, I asked what her main takeaways were. Though she welcomed the return of a less rigid way of eating, she said she no longer craved sugar and carbs and learned to better appreciate the tastes of whole foods. She also noticed that she had more energy and wasn’t hungry between meals, and noted that the program is a good way to detect food sensitivities.
For ease of preparation, the sauces may be mixed up well ahead of time and refrigerated. I often chop the veggies earlier in the day, too. Then at dinnertime, the meal comes together in a flash. Sometimes, I cook rice vermicelli noodles and place a small amount of those on the lettuce leaf before the meat mixture. When choosing the lettuce, purchase the option with the biggest, sturdiest-looking leaves. As an option, this meal can be enjoyed as a salad bowl, with or without the rice noodles.
Yield: 4-6 servings
- 1 pound ground beef
- 8 ounce button or baby bella (cremini) mushrooms
- 1/2 a large onion (red or yellow)
- Olive oil for pan (about 2 teaspoons)
- 1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce*
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- Romaine, butter, or leaf lettuce leaves, washed and dried
- Optional for serving: julienned carrots, cucumber, red peppers and/or sliced scallions; chopped peanuts; cilantro; sriracha sauce or dipping sauce (recipe follows)
- Optional Dipping (or Drizzling) Sauce
- 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce*
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sriracha sauce**
- 2 teaspoons honey
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- In a small bowl, mix together the Thai red curry paste, soy sauce, fish sauce, and garlic powder. Set aside. If using, mix together the dipping sauce ingredients in a separate small bowl and set it aside, too. Both sauces may be prepared 2-3 days in advance, covered and refrigerated.
- Finely chop the mushrooms and the onion. (To make quick work of this, you can pulse the veggies with a food processor if desired. Just make sure to stop at a fine chop...you don't want to puree them.)
- In a large sauté pan coated with olive oil, cook the mushrooms and onion over medium to medium-high heat, stirring regularly, until the mushrooms release all their liquid and are nicely browned, about 8-10 minutes. Add the ground beef, and continue to cook until the meat is browned, breaking it up as it cooks. When the meat is about halfway cooked, stir in the curry paste mixture (not the dipping sauce if you mixed that up, too), stirring to evenly coat the meat.
- To serve: scoop some of the meat mixture on top of individual lettuce leaves. Top with the julienned vegetables and other toppings of choice. Roll the lettuce around the filling (sort of like a burrito) and enjoy!
- *For a soy-free option to soy sauce, coconut aminos work well. The taste is not a spot-on replica but quite similar. I used this in place of soy sauce for someone with a soy allergy no one noticed the difference in this dish. It's a lower-sodium, gluten-free option as well.
- **For the dipping sauce, my original recipe called for chili paste instead of sriracha sauce. Since this is a condiment I rarely use--and I figured it might be one that others would have to buy just for this recipe--I tried several substitutes. Sriracha sauce is my favorite; the Thai red curry paste used in the meat mixture is delicious, too, for those who prefer no spiciness. All of these items can be found in the Asian section of most large grocery stores.
For those who may be strictly following the Whole30 plan, Jen looked up fish sauce and discovered that only some of them are Whole30-approved. Redboat is one brand with the stamp of approval.