Hart Irby, 10, loves catfish, but he hates the main ingredient that typically makes up the sauces and side dishes that accompany his favorite fish — mayonnaise.
So Hart rolled up his junior-chef sleeves, and with the help of his dad, Darren Irby, created a new take on catfish that combines zesty Asian flavors with a whole-wheat bun thus creating Arkansas meets Asia Catfish Sliders.
“The first time I tasted it, I put it down and danced,” Hart said.
Hart’s recipe was so nutritious and delicious, it was selected as the winning recipe for the state of Arkansas in the third annual Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama, Epicuriuos and the departments of education and agriculture, a nationwide recipe challenge to promote healthy lunches as part of the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative.
Hart is one of the 54 children, ages 8 to 12, whose recipe was selected by a panel of judges to represent their home states, three territories and the District of Columbia at the kids’ “State Dinner” that took place at the White House on Friday.
He is the first winner from Central Arkansas, as the last two years’ winners were from Fayetteville and Springdale.
Last year, Hart’s grilled chicken recipe was the runner up for the state of Arkansas, making him more determined to put his creativity to the test for this year’s competition.
Asian is Hart’s favorite cuisine. He enjoys making sushi with his sister Belle, age 8, at their dad’s house in downtown Conway.
“As a family, we’re always trying to see what we have in the refrigerator, and see if we can make it work,” Darren said.
Darren and Hart combined the same Asian flavors he loves — soy sauce, ginger, and sesame oil — into a marinade for catfish.
After the measurements are done, Hart becomes a human mixer, taking a whisk between two hands and rubbing them together as fast as he can creating a fire of flavor.
Hart suggests “dipping and pouring” the marinade so the catfish doesn’t become overwhelmed with flavor. The fish is then baked in a handmaid foil bag for 15 minutes at 450°F.
Hart always uses a blue and white plaid oven mitt to take his catfish out of the oven. “I always use this one,” he says. “It’s cool.”
As a topping, Hart creates a healthy alternative to slaw, nix the mayonnaise, using a broccoli slaw mix and a combination of Asian flavors, honey, olive oil and lemon juice.
As part of the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, contestants had to adhere to the USDA’s MyPlate nutrition criteria by having vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean protein foods.
To incorporate a fruit, and to add another flavor, Hart sliced half a Granny Smith apple into his slaw. “Granny Smiths are my favorite,” he said.
The other half of the apple he eats as a snack while he’s chopping, measuring and waiting on the catfish to finish cooking.
The catfish and Asian slaw are placed on a whole-wheat bun and paired with a side of fruit and a glass of milk to create an easy, affordable and delicious lunch.
“It doesn’t take a lot to eat healthy,” Darren said. “You just have to do a little planning.”
Hart said he planned to tell First Lady Obama “having the Challenge was an amazing idea” when he saw her at the state dinner.
Hart will be a fifth grader at Carl Stewart Middle School this fall. When he’s not in the kitchen, you can find him running track or practicing the bass guitar.