If you’re a regular reader, you probably know I’m fascinated by home cooking—not elaborate food, but rather the quick weeknight meals people throw together after a long day at work. Today I’m delighted to welcome Jane Grey Battle, age 10, who shares her fast, healthy—and award-winning!—recipe for Veggie Spaghetti with Alabama Gulf Shrimp.
Grey (as she’s called, despite the info in the links :) recently represented her home state of Alabama at the Kids’ State Dinner at the White House. She was one of 54 young chefs honored as winners of the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, a recipe contest linked to the first lady’s Let’s Move Campaign. Recipes had to include each of the four food groups: vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy—with fruits and vegetables composing about half of the plate. The contest received over 1,500 entries from around the country.
I’m thrilled to talk to Grey about her winning dish and afternoon at the White House!
On entering the contest:
My mom and dad encouraged me, because I love to try different foods. Our family cooks together a lot. We’ll all decide on a meal and get our own part or job. It’s very fun and the competition was sort of like that except I was creating the meal. Honestly, when we first sent the recipe, I didn’t really think I had a chance—it’s just one of those things you do for fun.
On creating her dish:
My dish began with a meal that we cook frequently—an Italian capellini dish with dried red pepper. As a family, we watch cooking shows. One of our favorites is called “Chopped.” I approached the new recipe like that—substituting healthy options for unhealthy, which is the reason we used spaghetti squash instead of pasta.
On the rigors of recipe testing—and tasting:
After cooking [the dish] seven or eight times we realized that we weren’t a hundred percent sure of the cooking times! So, we did it all over again, one last time. I pretended like I was “Rachael Grey” and talked like I was on TV, which helped as I wrote the final recipe down while my mom cooked it. I owe a lot to my family. They were right there beside me. My sister and I pretended we were judges on “Chopped” when we tasted the different versions of the recipe!
On learning the good news:
In May, we found out that the recipe was a finalist. Waiting was very nerve-wracking. I was at camp when my mom got the email about winning the trip to DC. My whole family knew before I did. Just as we were loading my camp gear in the car alongside two of my best friends, my sister showed me the letter. I squealed and hugged my friends. They were so excited with me, which makes for a really good friend. It was probably the best twenty seconds of my life. I jumped up and down and hugged everyone in sight.
On visiting the White House:
It was just so weird to be in the White House and be able to sit on the couch and to be treated as a guest. Michelle Obama spoke and President Obama made a surprise visit and spoke for a few minutes. I got to meet and be interviewed by the White House chef, Sam Kass (photo above). He’s awesome and really smart. We visited the White House garden. I saw Benjamin Franklin’s fig tree! The day went by like a blur.
On meeting the First Lady:
We all walked through a line where we got to meet and take our picture with Michelle Obama. She’s the tallest woman I’ve ever met!
On the best parts of the experience:
I met a girl named Abigail Cornwell from Ohio (photo above). We are pen pals now. Also, when we returned to Birmingham and got off the plane, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Crawford, was standing there. She is one of my favorite teachers and I thought that was the best ending I could ever have to the trip.
Veggie Spaghetti with Alabama Gulf Shrimp
Adapted from Jane Grey Battle
Note from Ann: I loved the bright, warm flavors of Grey’s dish, as well as her lightening-quick method for cooking the spaghetti squash. I have to admit, however, that I substituted fresh oregano because my grocery store was out of fresh basil! In the height of summer! (#foodcrimes) I also used smoked paprika instead of chiles de arbol. I can’t wait to try this again, as written.
1 large (or 2 small) spaghetti squash
1 onion, peeled and chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
4 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon sugar
Handful of fresh basil, cut into a chiffonade (or fresh thyme, or oregano)
24 large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 1/2 cups kale, destemmed and chopped
Pierce the squash with a fork in several spots. Microwave the squash on high for 15 minutes, in bursts of 5 minutes, or until the squash feels soft. Allow to cool for several minutes—it will be hot! Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Using a fork, scrape the strands of squash into a bowl. Season lightly with salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.
In a large sauté pan, warm 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until softened and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and sugar; season with salt. Cover with a lid and cook for 10 minutes. Decrease the heat to low, add the herbs and chiles and continue cooking for 8-10 minutes, until the sauce thickens slightly. Add the kale, increase the heat to medium, cover and cook for 5-7 minutes, until the kale has wilted. Stir in shrimp and cook until the shrimp are firm and pink, about 5-6 minutes.
Divide the spaghetti squash between four plates and spoon over the sauce and shrimp.
(Second photo by Jeff Elkins for Epicurious. Third and fourth photos from Brooke Battle.)
PS Listen to an interview with Grey on NPR!