Aliana Arzola-Piñero is a spunky girl from San Juan, Puerto Rico, who spends her days cooking with family and practicing rhythmic gymnastics. But on Tuesday, she donned a twirly green and pink polka-dot dress with a matching headband and danced with First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House.
The nine-year-old concocted a winning recipe (Eggplant Lasagna Rolls, recipe below) to land herself a spot at the second annual Kids' State Dinner.
An effort by the first lady's Let's Move! initiative and several partners to get kids to exercise and eat healthy, the dinner brought together 54 mini-chefs and their parents from every state and three U.S. territories for a meal.
This was Aliana's second attempt at a trip to the dinner. Last year's meat-and-veggie baked turnover submission didn't result in a ticket, but she tried again, and her perseverance paid off.
"I didn't give up!" she exclaimed during a phone interview Tuesday evening from her hotel room, still hyped from the whirlwind day.
Victory feels pretty sweet. She's been cooking with her grandmother since she was just two, but this was something special.
"I was very excited!" she said, recalling how her parents jumped up and down when they heard the news. The family was scheduled to be on vacation in Tampa, but added the Washington side trip to their plans.
After all, "it's the opportunity of a lifetime," Aliana's mom, Brenda, said. "It's something that motivates them early on, because sometimes eating healthy is hard. It's a challenge that helps them to eat more foods and try new things."
To win, the recipes have to be healthy, and Aliana's is no exception. That that's the result of a compromise she made with her mother.
"I really like pasta and my mom really likes eggplant," she said. The vegetable is not Aliana's favorite because, as she solemnly explained, it has "millions of seeds."
But mixed up with some garlic and bell pepper, carrots and olives, it's not so bad, and the judges didn't think so, either. More than 1,300 kids submitted recipes, and hers stood out.
The kids sampled meals from some of the other winners on Tuesday. Aliana was particularly fond of Kansas winner Olivia Neely's mini-pizzas with veggies and cauliflower crust.
The real thrill of the evening, though, came when Ms. Obama "grabbed my hands and we danced," she recalled breathlessly.
Aliana met the president, too, but said at least one member of the first family was nowhere to be found: First Dog Bo. Which makes sense, she reasoned. He probably would've eaten everything, anyway.
"Yummy Eggplant Lasagna Rolls"
Makes 6 servings
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
In a large pot of boiling water, cook the lasagna until tender, about 7 minutes. Drain the lasagna and let it cool on a flat surface.
While the lasagna is boiling, in a large sauté pan over moderate heat, warm the olive oil.
Add the onion, garlic, water, eggplants, carrots, bell pepper, olives, cilantro, and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the veggies are tender, about 8 minutes.
On a work surface, spread about 2 tablespoons of the eggplant filling over each lasagna noodle.
Using about half of the total amount, divide the cheese among the lasagna noodles.
Starting with the edge closest to you, roll each lasagna noodle tightly then secure with a toothpick.
Place the lasagna rolls in a large baking dish and cover each one with some tomato sauce and the reserved cheese. Bake until the cheese is golden, 15 to 20 minutes.
373 calories; 15g protein; 45g carbohydrates; 16g fat (4g saturated fat); 619mg sodium