She didn’t know what it was or how to cook it, but Grace Landini knew she really liked couscous at a very early age.
She also discovered that the tiny pasta, made of barley or wheat, doesn’t possess much taste by itself, but that it complements many of her favorite foods. Landini may be just 12 years old, but this young lady can chef-it-up more than many adults.
“When I was younger, we would always have lunches or dinners with our neighbors, and we would usually have couscous, and that was always my favorite part,” Landini said. “It was last summer when I realized how easy couscous is to make, and that’s why I knew I had to include that ingredient in my recipe for the contest.”
Recipe? What recipe?
Oh, yeah, that one submitted concoction that has ultimately led to Landini’s being summoned to the nation’s capital this Tuesday so she can shake hands with First Lady Michelle Obama, and maybe even President Barack Obama, because she’s been awarded one of 56 first-place finishes in the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge and will represent the state of West Virginia. “Grace’s Supermeal” was one of 1,200 recipes entered by children between the ages of 8 and 12 into the competition sponsored by PBS, the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, the Newman’s Own Foundation, and the First Lady’s “Let’s Move It” initiative.
“My dad (Mark) got an email one day (from Linsly alum Hayden Wright), and he told my mom (Liz) about it, and my mom asked me if I wanted to send in a recipe,” Landini said. “That’s when I told my mom I really did want to. The next day we started thinking of a recipe, and then we made it, and it was really good.
“I entered the contest in March, and then we found out I won in June,” she said. “And I was over the moon. I’m really excited to go to Washington, D.C., because I’ve never been there before.”
But what is a “supermeal?” Well, a “supermeal” is a dish made from “super foods,” silly, and that is how the soon-to-be-seventh-grader at The Linsly School developed her “Cool Couscous and Berry Healthy Dessert” recipe.
“’Super foods are really healthy, organic foods that are very good for you, and I knew I wanted to use those in my recipe,” Landini explained. “So right away I knew I had to include Greek yogurt, blueberries, and a lot of vegetables in it like kale, asparagus, tomato, onion, and green beans. And I knew there had to be couscous in it, too.”
Through her research, Landini discovered that couscous and Greek yogurt mixed well, and she was also determined to include vegetables that are especially high in protein.
“When I make my recipe, I use all of my favorite vegetables and also some chicken to improve the taste of the dish,” Landini said. “First you make the couscous, and you put that into a saucepan, and you mix in a little bit of butter and a little bit of salt, some water, and one chicken bouillon cube,” she explained. “And you also make the vegetables and the chicken any way you like to make those things. Then you mix it all together in the saucepan with the couscous and yogurt in it.”
So how did this 12-year-old become so familiar with nutrition at such an early age? Landini, the daughter of Mark and Liz Landini of Wheeling, credits her grandfather, the Grow Ohio Valley’s “Community Supported Agriculture” program, and a class her mother added to the curriculum at Wheeling Country Day, where she serves as Head of School.
“The thing that started my love for cooking was, when I was little, I would always cook Italian foods with my Pap Landini,” she explained. “And then last summer my mom started getting these boxes of vegetables from Grow Ohio Valley, and they gave us a recipe each week to use while making some of what was in the box. I also looked at other recipes for the other vegetables so none of it would ever go to waste.
“I’ve also taken a class at school called, ‘Kids in the Kitchen,’ and the teachers (school chefs Julie Cartwright and Amy Dodd) have taught me what foods are good for you and what foods you shouldn’t eat that much of,” she said. “I’ve learned how to make pineapple salsa, asparagus, applesauce, homemade mac-and-cheese, homemade cranberry sauce, and spaghetti squash, too.”
Now she and her mother will travel to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to begin a busy schedule mixed with tours, a visit from celebrity chef Rachel Ray and her “Yum-o!” organization, and a visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“When we get there on Tuesday, we’re going to tour the monuments and a lot of the museums, and then on Wednesday we get a private tour of the Smithsonian, there’s a cooking demonstration, and then that evening there’s a pizza party for all of the kids who won,” she said. “And there’s also a forum for the parents to attend.
“And then on Thursday I get to go the White House, and we’ll have a (“Kids State Dinner”), and we’ll also take a tour of the White House garden with the First Lady, Michelle Obama,” Landini continued. “I have a small garden at our house, and I want to know how to improve it by seeing what the First Lady plants in it. I have tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, blueberries, green beans, mint, and Brussels sprouts in mine.”
Soon after President Obama was elected to his first term in the Oval Office in 2008, Michelle Obama launched her efforts to improve American eating habits by raising awareness about nutritional values of prepared and unprepared foods. The First Lady has spurred improvements to public school food service and “from-farm-to-table” choices, and Landini intends to let the First Lady know she’s reached children in Wheeling, W.Va.
“I’m really excited to meet her because she’s inspired me to be a healthier eater and a better cook by building the White House garden and by teaching kids about healthier eating habits,” she said. “When I do meet her, I know I am going to say something about how and why she’s inspired me.
“I also hope to meet President Obama, but we do not know if that’s going to happen because he’s the president, and he might be too busy. But I do hope that he will be there because he has been the last three years,” she said. “But I’m not 100-percent positive that he’ll be there. If he is, I have no clue what I will say to him. No clue. I’ll be really nervous, I think.”
On July 14, each of the 56 winning recipes will be published for all to see on pbs.org/lunchtimechallenge, LetsMove.gov, USDA.gov, and Ed.gov.
“I know what inspired me to cook, but I think it’s going to be interesting to meet the other winners so I can find out what inspired the other kids to cook,” Landini added. “I also think that finding out their recipes will inspire me to be a better cook, and that’s why I am really looking forward to meeting the other kids.”
(Photos made available by the Landini family)