11-Year-Old’s Recipe Takes Her to the White House

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Photo by Briana Brough

Three years ago, Mena Choi experienced a breakthrough that takes some adults years to discover: “If you follow the recipes correctly, [the food] tastes amazing.” She was hooked after a week at C’est si Bon summer cooking camp where she peeled and grated alongside her classmates as they prepared dishes inspired by Asian cuisine.

A few years and many home-cooked meals later, her mom, Tracy DeLozier, spotted a tweet from First Lady Michelle Obama asking for kid recipes as part of her Let’s Move initiative. “My mom saw [the fifth annual Healthy Lunchtime Challenge] and said, ‘Why don’t we try this? We both like cooking,’” recalls Mena, now 11. For her submission, she drew from her Korean heritage, choosing lentils as the base of her patties since “they’re a protein and a vegetable” and using gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste) to bind them together. (Younger brother William Choi, 8, and dad Steve Choi were willing guinea pigs.)

When Tracy told Mena that she was the winner for North Carolina, the tyro chef was ecstatic. In July, mother and daughter flew to Washington, D.C., where they went sightseeing and met the other 55 young chefs from across the country. The main event was a garden-themed Kids’ “State Dinner” – held at lunchtime – in the East Room. “They actually announced us by state to go enter,” Tracy says. When it was her turn to pose for a photo with the first lady, Mena had to ask about a Korean side made of fermented cabbage. “I told her, ‘I heard you like kimchi,’” Mena recalls. “She said, ‘Yes, yes, I do,’ and she said she makes a lot of it.” Then Mena told the first lady about her healthy, winning recipe. “The coolest thing was as [Mrs. Obama] was leaving she whispered to me, ‘I think I mention Korean lentil patties in my speech!’” Tracy says. “And she did.”

Photo by Briana Brough

Back in Chapel Hill, the sixth-grader at Immaculata Catholic School has years to consider any fledging culinary ambitions. For now, you’ll find Mena making her favorite snack – oven-baked kale chips – or eating at Mixed Casual Korean Bistro (find her recipe on their menu this fall) with her family.

Photo by Briana Brough

Korean Lentil Patties

Makes 6 servings

  • 3/4 cup brown lentils, rinsed and drained
    2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 yellow onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic
  • 2 Tbsp. Korean hot pepper paste or red chili paste
  • 1/4 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • Juice from 1/2 fresh lemon
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • Olive oil

For Greek Dill Yogurt

  • 1 cup low-fat Greek yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon dill
  1. To make the Korean Lentil Patties: In a large stockpot, combine lentils with the broth and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer until tender, about 30 minutes. Once tender, drain the lentils to remove any extra liquid and let cool for 10 minutes. In a large mixing bowl, combine the lentils with the remaining ingredients except the breadcrumbs. Form into 6 balls with your hands. Place breadcrumbs on a plate and roll the balls in the breadcrumbs, flatten into patties and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400F. Place the patties on a large baking sheet and drizzle olive oil over the top of the patties. Bake for 25 minutes or until golden brown. Serve with Greek Dill Yogurt.
  2. To make Greek Dill Yogurt: In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt and dill and serve with the patties.


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Jessica Stringer

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