Here's Nicco Mele, a fourth grader from Arlington, Va., showing us the pi`ece de r'esistance in his favorite made-it-yourself dinner: Surprise Salad. ``Looks like just another yucky salad, doesn't it?'' he asks, showing us what appears to be a bowl of wet lettuce. ``But look,'' he says, lifting the top layer of greens, ``it's not!''
He's right. Below, nestled in another bed of wet lettuce, is roughly a cup of chocolate chips. ``Surprise!''
As anybody with a child and a kitchen knows, kids can cook - and not just cookies, either. ``Kids are more adventurous in the kitchen, more willing to experiment,'' says Catherine Evans, who teaches children and adults at the prestigious Academie de Cuisine near Washington.
``I ran an international [food] camp last summer and had the kids making German tortes,'' she says. ``Three of the girls came to me and said, `Catherine, we don't like chocolate and we don't like nuts, can we change the recipe and make it different?'
``So we did,'' she said. ``I know few adults who would be willing to experiment that radically with a recipe.''
In fact, Ms. Evans rarely gives out recipes until the end of the class, ``just as a reminder, if they want to make it again.'' Her recipes are more on the order of proportions and lists of possible ingredients: ``We make a basic cookie dough, and then I have bowls of chocolate, nuts, cinnamon, oatmeal, raisins, everything you can think of to add. And each person makes their own batch.''
Instead of recipes, she prefers giving children a spoon or a whisk of their own. ``I started teaching cooking when my three boys were little, and I didn't own a mixer. All the kids in the neighborhood would come over to help me cook; they would be my beaters,'' she says.
Fooling around in the kitchen is probably the easiest way to learn to cook - a goofing-off process encouraged by books like Sara Stein's ``The Kids Kitchen Takeover'' (Workman Publishing Company, out of print but available in many libraries), which includes recipes for invisible ink and directions for coloring eggs with onion skins, or Vicki Cobb's ``Science Experiments You Can Eat'' (J.B. Lippincott, $4.95).
Referring to the kitchen as the ``lab in everyone's home,'' Ms. Cobb shows kids how to make crystals (rock candy), turn red cabbage into a kind of litmus-paper test, form a reaction from a gas (while making lemon fizz), and measure water in seeds by making popcorn. Along the way, kids start to see cooking for what it really is - one delicious chemistry experiment.
It's an experiment that takes time, however, and a certain amount of supervision. Evans worries that busy parents often shoo children out of the kitchen to avoid their distractions while making dinner - distractions she thinks of as a good investment.
``Just think how nice it would be if you came home to find the salad made, a vinaigrette ready to pour, the meat seasoned, and the potatoes scrubbed,'' Evans says. ``A nine- or 10-year-old probably shouldn't be entrustred to light the oven, but he can get everything ready for it,'' she adds.
In fact, she thinks training as cooks begins ``when you put the first spoonful into their mouths, and they learn to taste.'' Toddlers can be given a chance to ``stir, taste, see, and smell what you're doing,'' she says. ``Give them a stool and their own spoon,'' she advises.
She concentrates on teaching tools and basic techniques, starting with the knife. ``One person said I'm the only woman she knows willing to work with a roomful of knife-wielding teen-agers,'' she teases, ``but I think it's very important that children, school-aged children, be taught the proper use of a knife.''
Evans shows students how to sharpen the knife ``because a sharp blade is safer than a dull one.'' She tells them why they need a cutting board on a steady surface, shows them how to curl their fingers back and let the knuckles guide them, and lets them cut up ``every vegetable in the world. Then you can use veggies to make a salad, a soup, or a stew.''
She then shows them how to use a whisk to make a basic white sauce, a versatile product ``you can add things to, like cheese, seafood, chicken, or vegetables, for all kinds of entrees.''
Cakes, cookies, breads are made from scratch in her classes. ``They need to know where the mixes come from, even if they never make them from scratch again,'' she says. ``It trains their palates, and lets them know why it's tasting like it's tasting.''
Evans's cookie recipe only makes 18 cookies, ``because making 50 is a bore,'' she says.
Her students learn to ``bone a chicken and a fish, and cut up beef,'' says Evans. ``One of my sons used to be crazy about making beef bourginon,'' she adds. ``He made it weekly.''
With these techniques, and a certain leniency on the part of the parents, kids can really cook, she affirms. And not just Surprise Salad, either. Eighteen Cookies 1/4 cup butter (half stick) 1/3 cup sugar 1 egg white or 1 egg yolk 3/4 cup flour Pinch of salt 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Mix butter and sugar until creamy and smooth.
Add egg (yolk or white) and beat well. To divide egg, crack a cold egg on a hard surface, open, and pour into a bowl. Then cup your hand, and slip it under the egg yolk. You should be able to lift it out.
Add flour, salt, baking powder, and vanilla and mix until mixture is well blended. Add flavorings or other ingredients you have chosen.
Bake at 375 degrees for about 8 minutes or until light brown.
Chocolate Chip: Add 2 tablespoons or more of chocolate chips or cut up candy bar.
Nut: Add 2 tablespoons of your favorite chopped nuts.
Oatmeal-Raisin: Add 2-3 tablespoons of oatmeal and a heaping tablespoon of raisins.
Cinnamon: Add 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon to cookie batter and spinkle the tops with cinnamon-sugar before baking.
Chocolate: Add 1 tablespoon of cocoa or 1/2 ounce of melted chocolate to dough. Add nuts or coconut if you like.
Catherine Evans's Vinaigrette 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard 2 tablepsoons vinegar 1/3-1/4 cup peanut or corn oil Salt (about 1/8 teaspoon) Pepper
Mix mustard, salt, pepper, and vinegar with a whisk.
Keep whisking and add the oil a little at a time (this is easier with two people!). The sauce should be thick and well mixed.
Use over lettuce, tomatoes, and other favorite salad ingredients.
Drink Experiments (from ``Kids Kitchen Takeover''):
Since experiments in drinking wouldn't be experimental if you had recipes, you must think up your own drinks. Use our examples as suggestions. If you like orange juice but hate milk, orange juice and milk, half and half, shaken up with some extra sugar tastes like melted orange popsicles. Then there's fruit: ripe bananas and most canned fruits mixed up with soda, milk, or orange juice in a blender are luscious.