Eleven-year-old Julia Rissberger explains herself on the phone with absolute assurance and confidence: “I started with a recipe that I love, but that isn’t very healthy. I reduced the amount of fat and sugar, subbed egg white for butter, added sesame seeds and oat bran to make it whole-grain. And there you have it.”
You’d never guess the drama unfolding in the kitchen behind her. “So, what just happened was Dad was so caught up in me being interviewed that he didn’t pay attention to the stove, and set fire to the linoleum, but everything’s fine now! Anyway, that’s the recipe.”
“You had to say that!” Julia’s mom, Rachel, says in the background.
And with that, we’re off on an adventure that will take Julia all the way from Oneonta in the Catskills to a state dinner at the White House, with the young cook as one of 55 finalists chosen to make the trip.
“Do you think we’ll get to meet the president?” wonders Julia.
“I have no idea what to pack,” Rachel says.
The Healthy Lunchtime Challenge is a recipe contest for kid chefs from around the nation. More than 1,000 entries from every state and territory had to meet the judging criteria — original, balanced, healthful, and, ideally, local — but only one winner per state is chosen. Julia’s winning entry, a spinach-and-apple salad with blueberry vinaigrette and whole-grain cheese pennies, is made with New York cheddar (reduced-fat, obviously). The blueberry vinaigrette is made with local blueberries. “You get to mash them with a potato masher, which is fun,” Julia notes.
Rachel saw the competition on Facebook. “I thought this would be perfect for Julia. Ever since she was old enough to stand on a chair and hold a spoon, we’ve been cooking together. When we heard she was the New York winner, we were so happy and excited! The school principal cried when we told him, and announced it on the loudspeaker.”
Tanya Steel, author of Real Food for Healthy Kids and the organizer and founder of the contest, tells the Voice, “It’s seriously hard to pick the winners. The quality this year was fantastic, and the level of sophistication is so high. We start by selecting two dishes per state or territory, then D.C. Central Kitchen prepares all the food, and our panel of judges, including some Kids’ State Dinner winners from previous years, tastes all the dishes. We pick a winning recipe from each state, then select the dishes that we’ll serve at the dinner.”
Steel continues, “Mrs. Obama has really given us a great forum. It empowers families and kids to shop, garden, and cook healthily, and it sparks a change. I only hope the next administration will continue the work that she’s ignited here.”
Julia wonders,“Do you think that the judges tell you if they’re going to serve your dish, or do you just wait and see if your plate comes out of the kitchen?”
“I hope not,” Rachel says. “Too much drama.”
Julia’s brother Gabriel surveys the scene. “I’m part excited, and part not,” he reports stoically. “It’s a long car ride.”
The day before the event, kids from all across America descend upon the Westin Georgetown. “We had a pizza party,” Julia says. “You’d think that would be unhealthy, but there was a lot of salad, and one of the pizzas was gluten-free and mostly vegetables. Then we had a Pay It Forward event. We got to write a letter to a military family, and send them our recipe. Before that, we had a private tour of Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian, and we got lost on the subway.”
“That subway ride is the most stressful part of the whole event,” Steel says. “But it’s absolutely worth it!”
The big day officially begins Friday, at 8:30 a.m. Julia’s rested and bubbly as ever: “I slept fine. Mom didn’t sleep at all.” Everyone piles into buses, and by around 9 a.m. they’re off, White House–bound.
The video feed from the dinner does not show a cheese-penny salad on the menu. But this doesn’t seem to bother Julia a bit. “It was amazing!” she says. “Michelle Obama congratulated me on my recipe, and I invited her to lunch next time she’s in New York. She laughed and said thanks.
“And then, right when we were about to eat, the door opened and a voice said, ‘Hold up,’ and it was the president, and he shook us all by the hand!”
“The president!” Rachel confirms.
“I thanked him for everything he and his family have done for our country,” says Julia, the very model of poise. “He said I was extremely well spoken, and obviously knew my way around a kitchen! Then there was lunch.”
The dishes were “really good,” though Rachel, who’s allergic to citrus, had a hard time of it. Pretty much every winning recipe served at the dinner, from the stuffed cucumber boats and “oodles” of zucchini noodles to a dessert of pineapple with white chocolate, went heavy on lemon and lime.
“I gave her some of my white chocolate, and she had a fruit plate,” says Julia. “It’s a shame, though, because citrus is a good way to wake up flavors.” Hint — that’s a winning tip.
Click here for a full list of the winning recipes.
Spinach and Apple Salad With Blueberry Vinaigrette and Whole-Grain Cheese Pennies
Recipe by Julia Rissberger, Age 11
Makes 6 Servings
479 calories, 32g fat, 35g carbohydrates,19g protein
For the Cheese Pennies:
½ stick unsalted butter, softened
8 ounces grated New York extra-sharp low-fat cheddar cheese
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup whole-wheat flour
¼ cup oat bran
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
½ teaspoon salt
1 large egg white
For the Cinnamon Almonds:
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon water
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¾ cup almonds
For the Blueberry Vinaigrette:
½ cup fresh or frozen (defrosted) blueberries
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
¼ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 teaspoon water
Dash of pepper
For the Spinach Salad:
12 cups baby spinach
1 cucumber, peeled and sliced
1 apple, such as gala or honeycrisp, cored and thinly sliced
1. To make the Cheese Pennies: Preheat the oven to 375°F. In a large bowl, combine the butter, cheese, all-purpose and whole-wheat flours, oat bran, sesame seeds, and salt. In a separate bowl, beat the egg white with an electric mixer until soft peaks appear. Fold the egg white into the cheese mixture. Roll into 24 small balls and place on an ungreased baking sheet. Flatten the balls with a fork. Bake for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove the pennies from the baking sheet, and let cool slightly.
2. To make the Cinnamon Almonds: In a nonstick sauté pan, bring the sugar, water, and cinnamon to a boil over medium heat. Add the almonds and stir continuously until the water evaporates and the sugar starts to harden on the almonds. Pour the nuts on a plate to cool.
3. To make the Blueberry Vinaigrette: In a medium bowl, smash the blueberries with a potato masher or fork. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.
4. To assemble, divide the spinach, cucumber, and apple among 6 plates. Top each salad with 1 tablespoon lightly chopped cinnamon almonds and drizzle with blueberry vinaigrette. Serve with warm cheese pennies.