As appeard on the Philadelphia Inquirer | Sun, Jul. 02, 2006

Where the first ingredient is fun
Vanilla Beans summer cooking camp for children teaches young chefs how to whip up a tasty meal.
By Mary Anne Janco | Inquirer Suburban Staff

Ten-year-old Ellen Armour hustled into the kitchen with a handful of fresh mint she had picked from the garden.

Jack Cavanaugh, the guest chef, was demonstrating to other young cooks how to safely slice and dice vegetables for the Greek feast they were preparing.

At the stove, Margaret Murray, 12, was heating fresh baby spinach for the spanakopita - a tasty appetizer the children made by filling delicate phyllo dough with a mixture of spinach and feta cheese.

This is a summer camp for children who love to cook and experiment with new ingredients and tastes from around the world. It's the latest venture for Carrie Shankweiler and Debbie Sloman, who formed Vanilla Beans Tasting Possibilities in the spring.

For years, Shankweiler, 35, a former teacher, has opened her Swarthmore home to teach children to cook and share literary interests. She learned the value of cooking as a teaching tool when a boy she was tutoring hated reading - until she started having him read recipes and cook.

The summer camp, which has four weekly sessions, runs through July 14. The cost is $275 a week; $165 for a shortened session July 5 to 7.

Giving children confidence in the kitchen and inspiring picky eaters to try new foods are not the only goals at this camp. Shankweiler wants to teach children to read labels and the benefits of cooking with fresh ingredients.

Shankweiler pulled open the cabinets in her kitchen, noting that there are no partially hydrogenated oils in any of the products there. Vanilla Beans, which also supplies baked goods to the Swarthmore Co-Op and Martindale's Natural Foods in Springfield, does not use artificial colors or artificial ingredients.

Shankweiler said she and Sloman, 53, an administrative assistant at Swarthmore College, "share a passion for using real food and real ingredients when we cook."

The two women also want to show children how to experience food the way it should be experienced - so on the first day of camp, they set a formal table with linen napkins and fine china. Each day, the children prepare a centerpiece for the table.

" We want kids to know how to eat. It's not an on-the-go meal in a package," Shankweiler said. "Food is something you prepare. You cut it. You grow it."

Sloman, of Media, who has had her own catering business, By Request, said she had cooked with children before but this was her first cooking camp and she enjoyed the students' "inquisitiveness" and "interest."

During a recent day at camp, a big hit with the students was the "snack challenge." As on Bravo's Top Chef show, the children were given ingredients and a timed challenge to create something - in this case, a snack.

It was organized chaos as two teams raced to whip up creations using yogurt, cereal, apple sauce and bananas in 15 minutes before they finished preparing the Greek specialties of the day - spicy lamb patties and Greek salad.

Rowan Fabian-Baber, 11, of Rose Valley, the only boy at camp that day, said, "This is my first cooking class. I wanted to start getting into cooking." He opened his scrapbook of photos of the food that he'd helped make and the recipes that he'd collected so far in camp. "I just love to see someone eat what you made," he said.

Murray, whose sister also attended the camp, said she is part of the Blueberry Book Club that Shankweiler offers in her home for fathers and daughters. The fun she had there prompted her to take the cooking camp, she said. "Making the spinach, wrapping it up in phyllo dough was so much fun. It was all new to me."

After camp, Shankweiler, the mother of three, was busy mixing a double batch of chocolate-chip cookie dough for a coming event. Cage-free eggs and organic butter went into the mixing bowl.

Shankweiler wants eventually to have Vanilla Beans chocolate-chip cookie dough in freezers throughout the Philadelphia area. "Vanilla Beans is the Ben and Jerry's of cookie dough," she said. "That's how I see it."

More on "Beans"
Vanilla Beans Tasting Possibilities offers summer cooking camp for children 8 to 15. Vanilla Beans also offers cooking workshops for children and adults, children's birthday celebrations, and home-baked goods.
For more information, call 1-484-574-1256.

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VANILLA BEANS - 27 Oberlin Avenue    Swarthmore, PA 19081    USA | phone 610-659-0917    fax 610-690-0911 | vanillabeans@comcast.net