MATTHEWS, NC (Jane Wester/The Charlotte Observer) - On July 10, two days before his 9th birthday, Alex Tschegg of Matthews will eat dinner at the White House with first lady Michelle Obama.
Alex is the N.C. winner of the 2015 Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, a healthy-recipe contest for students ages 8-12. From nearly 1,000 entries, judges – including the executive director of Let's Move, Obama's anti-childhood obesity initiative – chose 55 recipes, one from each state, four U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.
Alex's winning recipe involves curried chickpeas, cilantro rice and baked tofu alongside a "local green salad." Very local, in the Tscheggs' case. They grow lettuce, tomatoes, berries and other produce in their backyard and at Crestdale Community Garden in downtown Matthews.
Alex has been helping his mom, Melissa, a veterinarian, in the garden since he was a toddler, and he said he started cooking with her when he was 4 or 5 years old.
Nowadays he can cook pizza sauce and scrambled eggs by himself, but the chickpea-tofu recipe was a collaboration with Melissa, who heard about the contest on PBS. It's a modified version of a typical dinner for the family.
"We changed it a little bit, by changing, like, white rice to brown rice," he said. "And we usually fry the tofu. We changed it to baked tofu."
Alex, who just finished third grade at Idlewild Elementary School, said he was sure his recipe would win, but Melissa wasn't as confident.
"I said, we're just doing this just to try. I was totally shocked, actually, when you won," she told him.
Healthy Lunchtime Challenge started in 2012 as the brainchild of Tanya Steel, former editor of Epicurious magazine and author of a 2008 children's cookbook.
Steel said she hopes the next presidential administration continues the competition and the weekend's crowning event, a "Kids' State Dinner" at the White House. Obama hosts the meal, chooses a theme and decorations and enjoys a menu of some of the winning recipes.
Alex doesn't know yet if his recipe will be served at the dinner. He and his mom will be in Washington for three nights. Contest winners get to meet celebrity chefs, visit the White House's kitchen gardens and take a private tour of Julia Child's kitchen at the National Museum of American History.
Alex is excited, but he said he doesn't see himself working with food as a career.
"I like gardening," he said. "I like it, I don't think it's bad or anything, but I like aeronautical engineering."
CURRIED CHICKPEAS WITH BAKED TOFU OVER CILANTRO RICE
- 1 (15-ounce) package extra-firm tofu
- 2 tablespoons whole-wheat flour
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast (optional)
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Nonstick cooking spray
- 4 cups vegetable broth
- 3 cups uncooked brown rice
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 1 teaspoon canola oil
- 1 large onion, peeled and diced
- 4 bell peppers, assorted colors, seeded and diced
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 2 teaspoons yellow curry powder
- 1 (14-ounce) can low-fat coconut milk
- 1/2 cup low-fat milk
- 1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed well
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the tofu on a paper towel-lined plate and press with another paper towel to squeeze out excess water. Cut into bite-sized cubes.
In a medium bowl, combine the whole-wheat flour, nutritional yeast (if using), garlic and salt. Add the tofu and toss to coat. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray and spread the tofu in a single layer. Bake 30 minutes, gently stirring once so all pieces are evenly browned.
While the tofu is baking, bring 2 cups water, vegetable broth and rice to boil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook 45 minutes, or until the rice is tender. Remove from heat and add the chopped cilantro.
Heat the canola oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and peppers and cook about 8 minutes, or until softened. Add the garlic, curry powder, coconut milk, milk, chickpeas and salt. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes.
To serve, layer brown rice and curry sauce and top with baked tofu.