It's only 11 a.m. but dinner preparations are well under way in Laura Burden's kitchen -- bells are ringing, water is running, vegetables are being rinsed, hamburger is cooking, pots are being stirred, cheese is being grated, tomatoes and onions are being chopped, and someone is doing a little dance. . .
What's most surprising, however, is not the hour, but the fact that all this activity is being generated by a group of kids. Six girls, ages 6 to 9, are deep into their third lesson in preparing family meals -- from choosing a menu, to setting the table, to kitchen safety, to cooking and cleaning up.
Under Ms. Burden's patient direction, the students in "Laura's Kidchen" learn how to buy chicken, what kitchen terms mean ("What does boiling mean? How can you tell if something's boiling? That's right, it has bubbles."), how to wash lettuce, peel garlic and chop tomatoes, how to stir liquids ("In a figure eight, remember? A figure eight."), how to serve and pass plates, how to eat in company. ("Close your mouth when you chew. No one wants to see that food.")
Along the way, the girls provide a little information, too, about such things as how pervasive convenience foods are (when Ms. Burden asked, "The best way to buy chicken is . . . ?" all six chorused, "Skinned and boned!"); and how to avoid the terror of monsters in the closet. ("I said, 'OK, you big fat hairy monster, your mother wears Army boots.' And he didn't come out. So it was OK.")
Throughout it all, Ms. Burden moves with the grace and precision of an orchestra conductor, adjusting a child's hand on the knife, reminding another to turn the handles of pots and pans, checking the progress of food in the oven. She is prepared for just about any eventuality: a broken plate; a sudden sick-out ("No dessert then, sweets are bad for sick tummies.") followed by a miraculous recovery; a scattering of corn flake crumbs on the floor; a pile of sea salt in the sink where three children tried to fill a 1/4 -teaspoon measure by hold-ing it under the salt grinder.
This is the last class session of the summer. Like all the summer sessions, it lasts a week, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday to Friday. The first class covers safety, table-setting and kitchen basics; the next four days include an activity. Every day has a different theme (among them, Italian, Hawaiian, Mexican, All-American, "Animal Day," a picnic). During the school year, classes are one day a week for 8 weeks, Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon, or after school on Mondays or Tuesdays from 4:15 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. Sessions cost $110 per child. Even though the first class of each session covers the basics, children who take a class repeatedly will not get the same recipes. And, of course, each class concludes with a meal.
"What are we going to do with the food?" asks Meredith Suelau, 9, at the first class.
"We're going to eat it," says Ms. Burden.
"That's why we set the table," says Laura Waters, 6.
The menus are fairly sophisticated. The Mexican meal included shaped, baked taco shells with a chicken and kidney bean filling and half a dozen condiments to dress them, including salsa, lemon-limeade (made with ice and festively served in margarita glasses), and fried ice cream. There are printed recipes the kids can take home.
"I don't want to cook things I know they can do at home," Ms. Burden says, citing hotdogs, brownies and French toast among things youngsters commonly know how to make. "I give the kids recipes they can take home and fix for their parents. And the parents will like it." She explains that to the children: "Even if you don't like salsa, the people you'll be cooking for, your parents, they like salsa."
"You do it for them," says Kirsten Smith, 9.
"There are different ways I try to get them to think a little," Ms. Burden says. She tells them how recipes might be changed ("You could take the bean and chicken mixture and serve it over noodles. Or over rice."), how food can be stretched and how to make economical meals. ("Skinned and boned is the most expensive way to buy chicken. The best way to buy it is to buy a whole chicken and cut it up yourself. Does everyone know what a whole chicken looks like?")
She won't allow a child to refuse food without tasting it. "Always try your food before you decide if you like it or not. . . . You worked so hard to make it, don't you want to taste it?" she asks, reasonably, and they usually do. And she doesn't allow them to disparage food.
"Don't give me any of that, I don't like that," says Laura Suelau, 6, turning up her nose at the chicken and bean sauce that goes in the taco shells.
"How do you know?" Ms. Burden asks.
"I don't like tomato."
This is the chicken sauce, not the salsa, Ms. Burden tells her.
Natalie Waters, 9, breaks in, "There's no tomato in it."
Ms. Burden begins ladling sauce into Laura's bowl.
"Don't give me any beans," says Laura, "I hate them."
"Don't say you hate them. Say you dislike them, doesn't that sound better? Anyway, you have to taste them." Ms. Burden gives her a small portion and moves on.
And she constantly, gently, reminds them of their manners. "We need to wipe off our mouths if we get salad dressing everywhere," she says to Laura Waters, who looks aggrieved. "I know it's hard when you don't have any front teeth," she adds soothingly.
jTC Manners often play a big role in parents' decision send their children to the class. "Mothers call and say, 'Can you help me? They won't listen to me,' " Ms. Burden says.
This most recent class, which ended a couple of weeks ago, though typical in sophistication and amount of ground covered, was unusual in a couple of aspects. It was smaller than normal; usually classes have about 10 children. Also it included a contingent of younger children -- two 6-year-olds, one 7-year-old; Ms. Burden prefers children ages 8 to 12, because she thinks they will get more out of the class. It also was made up of sisters -- three sets, two of them nieces of Ms. Burden, taking their second class with her. And it's unusual because there are no boys. Most of her classes, Ms. Burden says, include one or two boys.
"I do have boys signed up for the fall," Ms. Burden says. "Boys are great, they're really into it. The kids have fun -- mostly they tease each other." She always reminds the boys that many great chefs have been men.
Unusual class or not, the children's progress is evident as the week goes on. They quickly learned to wash their hands before starting to cook and at every stage thereafter ("I've touched raw meat," Ms. Burden says at one point, "so what do I do?" "Wash your hands!"). They have mostly mastered the art of cutting things up -- Ashleigh Smith, 7, chops up tomatoes like a pro -- and they all remember to cut away from themselves. They have " learned to read recipes and match ingredient amounts with measuring cups and spoons. And they are absolute wizards at cleaning up.
Ms. Burden was born in Iowa and raised on the Eastern Shore, and has worked since she was 13 years old in some aspect of food service. She has worked in many places in the region -- College Park, Annapolis, Oxford -- and in Rehoboth, Del. A few years ago she began experimenting with programs for children, giving classes and offering kids' cooking demonstrations at Kitchen Bazaar in Towson. This is the first year of Laura's Kidchen. Ms. Burden is currently writing a cookbook for youngsters.
"I love children, and I love cooking," Ms. Burden says. Her previous work was in advertising, and she wasn't satisfied with that. "Just by sitting down and brainstorming, this is what I came up with. The kids are great. . . . And cooking is so great, when you create something from nothing."
The children return the sentiment. As they sit down to eat their Mexican meal, Natalie raises her blue-rimmed goblet. "A toast," she says, and all the girls raise their glasses. "Cheers! To the most wonderful cooking-class teacher in the world!"
"Cheers to this wonderful chicken!" says Laura Suelau.
The dishes Ms. Burden prepares with the children are designeappeal to the whole family -- though she notes that children tend to have some finicky habits when it comes to food: They don't like to mix things, and they don't like -- or think they don't like -- strong flavors such as onions or chilis. So while she may tone down a recipe for kids' consumption, she always explains how to jazz it up a bit for more intrepid tastes, with more onion or spices. She wants them to learn that recipes can be adjusted to suit particular tastes.
She also tells them there are some things in the kitchen that require adult supervision, or that adults have to do. Some kids aren't allowed to touch any appliances; others are skillful with the toaster or microwave. She reminds them to follow the rules of their own house when preparing food.
Here are dishes the recent group of summer-session children fixed.
1 pound chicken breast, boned and skinned
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large cloves garlic
1 15 1/2 -ounce can red kidney beans (don't drain)
1 8-ounce jar mild taco sauce
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 heads iceberg lettuce
2 medium tomatoes
2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup pitted, sliced black olives
1/2 cup green pepper
4 green onions, sliced (optional)
1/2 cup jalapeno pepper, sliced (optional)
1 avocado, peeled and sliced (optional)
6 baked taco shells (recipe below)
Cut the chicken into 2-inch strips and place in skillet with oil and chopped garlic. Cook for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain the fat and set chicken aside in a bowl.
In the same skillet, place undrained kidney beans, taco sauce and chili powder and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Add chicken, simmer for another 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and pour into serving dish.
While the chicken is cooking, wash and chop the lettuce, tomato, green pepper and green onions and place in separate bowls. Chop the olives and jalapeno peppers, place in separate bowls. Shred the cheese and place in a separate bowl. Place salsa and sour cream in separate bowls.
To serve, place one taco shell on each plate and "build" pinata, starting with chicken mixture and adding any other ingredients you like.
Baked taco shells
6 8-inch flour tortillas
6 tablespoons canola oil
Heat oven to 350 degrees. With a pastry brush, brush oil on both sides of each tortilla. Place each tortilla in a 6-inch oven-proof bowl. Make 6 loose balls of aluminum foil and place in center of tortillas.
Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until edges become brown and tortillas become a stiff shell.
Serves four to six.
1 6-ounce can frozen limeade
Place limeade and ice in blender and mix together until it looks like snow.
Slice lime and slit one edge to make lime "wheel."
Serve in tall, pretty glasses garnished with a lime wheel.
For more information about Laura's Kidchen, call Laura Burde(410) 377-8330.