"The whole art of teaching is only the art of awaking the natural curosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards ." -- Anatole France

AMONG THE many pleasant aspects of the cooking classes Richard Nelson conducts each summer in Astoria, Ore., is satisfying one's culinary curiosity at lunch time. Promptly at 1 p.m., the fruits of the morning's labor are portioned out. These aren't menus. Nelson is far too enthusiastic and energetic to settle for creating a mere meal when his pupils can manage to complete a dozen or more recipes in the morning session. The student is presented a panorama of foods and has worked hard enough to rationalize trying them all.

As good as many of them were, though, they were not the primary reason for visiting far-off Oregon. Nelson was. He is president of the Association of Cooking Schools, so it was of particular interest to observe how he approaches the difficult task of giving hobbyist cooks a hand up the culinary ladder.

It might seem the deck is stacked against him in this status-conscious field. A practicing businessman in his early 50s, Nelson is neither a chef nor did he train abroad. He champions American recipes and is an outspoken foe of kitchen mystique. These last traits are becoming strengths at a time when winning through intimidation is losing its appeal as a kitchen game.

Furthermore, Nelson lacks the ego of a puffed up souffle. After giving an introductory briefing on each day's activities, he insists that the students, not he, do the cooking. Rather than hold center stage, he prefers to do an occasional turn at the stove, troubleshoot and take responsibility for a tricky (and perhaps dangerous) task such as unmolding a frying pan filled with hot potatoes.

What sets his school apart from others I have visited is its physical design and the depth of planning and organization. "Coach" Nelson's game plan is very carefully worked out and he is a superb quartermaster. He perfected this talent while assisting his friend James Beard for several years at classes Beard conducts at nearby Seaside. Nelson's summer schedule consists of four one-week courses spread over five weeks from late June through July. This year the subjects were the foods of Northern Italy, Provence, America and the Pacific Northwest.

The site is a 12-year-old junior high or "middle school" in a wooded setting in residential Astoria. Six complete kitchen units have been installed in a room where home economics is taught during the school year. There is ample equipment (some of it donated to the school by Nelson), the room is large, clean and airy, and students can be together without stepping all over one another. This solves a major frustration for students who frequently find that they are expected to watch and listen to a demonstration but not become involved.

Nelson limits enrollment to 18, so everyone gets to work with food. He has gone to the effort and expense of hiring assistants and follows through by delegating responsibility to them. They are the camp counselors, each one supervising a separate work kitchen. Their level of experience and skill varied, but none of them was a dud and all were very considerate of the students.

The classes I attended were happily free of social pressures and competition among food snobs. The students weren't pushed, beyond meeting a schedule so that their recipes would be completed on time. They were free to move around, observe or kibitz, or initiate freelance projects with the bread specialist and others.

The raw materials called for in each day's recipes were on hand in ample quantity. (In fact, a sense of generosity underlies the entire activity. There was no skimping on food or the amount of time the staff would give the students.)

The subject during my week was "Foods of the American Northwest." As Astoria is located at the mouth of the Columbia River, where it meets the Pacific Ocean, seafood played an important part in the presentation. Salmon, oysters, crab, razor clams, petrale sole swam into class. Some magnificent raspberries appeared and so did a classy local vegetable, the Seaside pea. We prepared sweet and savory pies and souffles; baked lima beans, breads, blueberry muffins and popovers; fried oysters and clams and tried a variety of sorbets and salad dressings. Corry Belknap, a talented game cook, taught different preparations for wild goose and duck, elk and venison.

Much of the cooking involved applying common sense more than magic and many of the recipes could be prepared without attending class. The benefits of attendance are learning proper texture, timing and taste reference, plus the reassurance that, like opera liberettos, recipes become less awesome when written and cooked in English.

Some of Nelson's tips were downright folksy. For example, he pointed out that the end result of bread crumbs made with stale bread is "stale bread crumbs" and provided a fine method for preparing and storing fresh crumbs. Fish poached in water tastes much the same as one poached in a complex court bouillon, he said, and provided it with a whole salmon. Of course, common sense does far more to promote good cooking than "secrets," no matter how seductively packaged.

Here are several of Nelson's recipes, kitchen-tried and taste-tested. FRUITED LEMON CHICKEN 6 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup filberts 1 frying chicken, cut in pieces Salt and pepper, to taste Pinch of crumbled, dry thyme 8 to 10 lemon slices 8 to 10 moist dried prunes 8 to 10 dried apricots

Melt butter and add filberts. Heat and stir until toasted. Remove nuts and set aside. Season chicken with salt and pepper and saute to brown on all sides -- about 20 minutes. Reduce heat, sprinkle chicken with thyme. Arrange lemon slices, prunes and apricots over top of chicken. Cover and cook 20 minutes more. Remove cover, add filberts and cook 5 minutes more. Arrange chicken and fruits on warm platter and pour any remaining pan drippings over top. OREGON BAKED LIMA BEANS (12 servings) 4 cups dried lima beans 1 pound thickly-sliced bacon 2 teaspoons mustard 4 tablespoons brown sugar 3 teaspoons salt 1 teaspoon pepper 1 teaspoon ginger 6 tablespoons molasses 1 cup boiling water Cover beans with cold water and soak overnight. In the morning, pour off the water, cover with fresh water in a saucepan, and simmer until beans are tender. Drain and put in beanpot with the bacon.Mix mustard, sugar, salt, pepper and ginger with a little water. Add molasses and mix. Pour over the beans to cover.Add the boiling water if there is not enough liquid. Bake in beanpot or earthen bowl, covered, for 4 hours at 250*. Add hot water occasionally if the beans seem too dry. Stir.Uncover and raise the heat to 300*; bake until beans are tender and brown on top. LEMON SQUARES 1 cup butter 1/2 cup powdered sugar 2 1/3 cups unsifted flour 4 eggs 2 cups sugar Grated lemon peel, from 1 plump lemon Juice of 1 1/2 lemons 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 scant teaspoon salt

In a large bowl, cream together butter and powdered sugar, using a wooden spoon. Add 2 cups flour, using a hand beater. Use hand to flatten mixture in the bottom of a well-greased, 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Bake at 350* for 20 minutes.

In a small bowl, beat eggs until light. Gradually, add sugar, beating well until thick and pale. Add lemon juice, remaining 1/3 cup flour, baking powder and salt. Beat thoroughly. Add lemon peel with spoon and beat well. Pour mixture over baked crust and return to oven. Bake until pale golden brown and fairly solid. About 40 to 45 minutes. Should be jelly like when cold. When cool, dust with powdered sugar evenly. Cut in small squares or small bars. Keeps well. PLUMS IN VODKA (6 servings) 1 cup sugar 1/2 cup water 1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger (or 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely minced) 2 pounds plums, red, yellow or blue 2 tablespoons vodka 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 teaspoon almond extract

Put the sugar, water and ginger in a saucepan large enough to hold the plums. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat and cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Stem the plums, cut in half lengthwise and remove the pits. Add the plums to the sugar syrup and cook until tender but still fairly firm (6 to 12 minutes, depending on the ripeness of the fruit). With a slotted spoon, remove the plums to a heat-resistant dish, such as a souffle dish. Boil down the syrup until it is reduced to about 2/3 of its original volume. Pour it over the plums and cool to room temperature. Do not refrigerate.

When ready to serve, put the vodka, almond and vanilla extracts in a very small saucepan. Heat almost to the boiling point. Light the simmering liquid with a match, pour the mixture over the plums and serve flaming. APPLE AND CHEESE PIE (8 servings) 6 slices bacon 2 medium onions, chopped 7 tart apples 2 tablespoons water 2 teaspoons sugar 1/4 cup chicken boullion Pie dough (recipe follows) 1 egg white, lightly beaten 3 cups sharp cheddar cheese.

Fry bacon in a large skillet. Drain and crumble and pour out all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon grease. Add and saute the onions. Add the apples and water, cover the skillet and simmer until the apples are juicy but still slightly firm. Remove from the heat and add the crumbled bacon, sugar and boullion.

Roll out the pie dough and brush the bottom crust generously with oil; then brush with lightly-beaten egg white. Spread the apple-onion mixture evenly into the pie shell, layering with grated cheese. Pile well above level of pan. Put on the top crust and vent with a fork.

Bake at 450* for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350* and bake 45 minutes longer. Wonderful as a side dish for roast pork. Pie Crust: 3 cups flour 9 tablespoons butter and 1/4 cup vegetable shortening 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 egg, plus 1 yolk 3 to 4 tablespoons cold water

Combine ingredients and chill. This will provide two crusts. CURRIED CORN PUDDING (8 servings) 1 cup onion, minced 3 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon curry powder 2 cups whole corn (drain, if canned) 2 cups creamed corn 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon sugar 2 cups light cream 3 eggs, slightly beaten Sprigs of parsley

Saute the onion with the butter and curry powder until the onion is soft. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and add the whole and creamed corn, salt, sugar, cream and eggs. Blend well.

Pour the mixture into a well-buttered, 1 1/4-quart souffle dish and bake at 350* for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until the top is puffed and golden. Garnish with sprigs of parsley. DEVILED CRAB (8 servings) 2 pounds of crabmeat 2 cups cracker crumbs 1 cup finely-diced celery 3/4 cup chopped onion 3/4 cup melted butter 3/4 cup cream (or milk) 1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard 1/2 teaspoon salt Dash of cayenne pepper 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 1 tablespoon chopped green pepper Dash of hot pepper sauce

Combine crabmeat with crumbs, celery and onion. Add melted butter and cream. Season with the mustard, salt, cayenne, parsley, green pepper and hot pepper sauce. Mix thoroughly and bake, covered, in a casserole for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

For a variation, combine scallops, shrimps and crab or substitute shrimps or scallops.

Note: Best cooked in a shallow casserole. For crustier top, bake uncovered. If recipe is doubled, use the same oven temperature and time.