Valerie Erwin greeted us warmly when we arrived at her Geechee Girl Rice Cafe in Mount Airy: "Hello, hello! Welcome!" she said.
After reading about the cooking lessons at St. Martin de Porres school, chef Erwin invited the girls to dinner at her restaurant. And she got right down to business, hanging coats, stashing handbags, and instructing the girls to tie back their hair before ushering us into the kitchen.
"Are we working?" Kayla Reid asked.
"I don't know, we'll see," I said.
"First rule," said Erwin, "wash your hands."
And then she announced the menu: "We're having Aunt Netta's chicken and rice, a family favorite, and also green beans and a romaine salad," she said. She had already made the chicken and rice, but had saved a few jobs for the girls.
Hope Wescott volunteered to prep the green beans.
"OK, here's the stem," Erwin said, indicating the end to be removed. Then she demonstrated how to hold the knife: "If you put your finger on one side of the blade, and your thumb on the other, you will have more control," she said. "Now line up a few beans, then point the tip of your knife down, then slide it through . . . Good, good!"
The corn bread had to be cubed for croutons; Chamya Davis stepped up and was soon cubing away.
Then Erwin told Kayla Reid how to deal with the romaine. "We're going to set up a one-man assembly line here," she said, showing Kayla how to take leaves from a pile on her left, slice them on the cutting board in front of her, then put them in the salad bowl on her right. "It makes it much quicker and easier if you set yourself up properly."
It was time to blanch the prepped green beans. Erwin explained the process: Give them a quick boiling-water shock - till they are bright green - then dump them in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Next, they would get a turn in a hot skillet before being tossed with caramelized onions.
The corn bread croutons needed crisping in a skillet of hot oil, and Erwin demonstrated how: Put a few in the hot pan, turn them on each side with the tongs as they brown, then drain them on a paper towel.
Maliyah Gregg was game, at least for the first few minutes. But the kitchen was tight, and a big pot of water was boiling, the steam rising; the oven was fiery, the oil was smoking in the skillet. "It's so hot in here," she said. "I'm sooo hot."
Erwin was having none of it: "Rule No. 2," she countered. "You can't complain about the heat. Yes, it's hot. But you know what Harry Truman said: 'If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.' "
The whining stopped; Maliyah soldiered on, producing some golden, beautifully crisped croutons.
"Very nice job," said Erwin.
Maliyah broke into a smile and, victorious, raised her tongs high in the air.
One last job, dressing the salad, fell to Jayla Reeves.
"It's a buttermilk dressing with shallots and parsley, kind of like ranch, only better."
Once tossed, Erwin showed them how to plate - "from the middle out, so you don't get stuff all over the edges" - and then top with a handful of croutons.
As the croutons were distributed, Maliyah couldn't help herself: "Can we taste one?"
"Sure," said Erwin.
Maliyah put one in her mouth and her eyes closed. She looked at me: "Now that's a good crouton," she said.
Each girl took a plate of salad into the dining room, to the table Erwin had set for six.
"Let's say grace," said Jayla. And then they dug in.
Driving the girls over to Geechee Girl, I had explained that while I asked for honesty about our meals in the convent kitchen, this was different. We would be guests, and it would be rude to tell the chef if there was something they did not like.
When they tasted the unfamiliar tartness of the buttermilk dressing, they started to scrunch up their faces. But then Jayla caught my eye.
"It's dee-licious," she said, perhaps a little too enthusiastically.
Soon Erwin delivered a heaping platter of chicken, rice, and green beans to the table, and each girl was claiming her piece of chicken before it was set down. No pretending needed, the girls loved every bite. Well, almost all the girls.
After a few minutes, Erwin came out to chat, and as luck would have it, she stood next to the veggie-phobe, Maliyah.
"How is everything?" she asked her.
"Well, salad is not my thing," Maliyah said. "But I did eat the croutons. . . . Now, chicken, I'll fly with that."
"Well, what about the green beans? If you don't try them, you never know. And your taste buds change, so you have to keep trying. It's always important to try things graciously, just a little bit."
Jayla decided to take matters into her own hands: "If you eat a green bean, I'll bring you a Swedish fish tomorrow," she said.
Maliyah took a deep breath, picked up her fork, stabbed a green bean, bit it in half, chewed, and swallowed.
It was a first and I was impressed. Jayla, not so much: "That's only half," she said.
Maliyah forked the other half into her mouth, and, as quickly as she could, chewed and swallowed.
"That was the hardest thing I ever did," she said, actually quite proud.
"Did you like it?" I asked.
"Not really." But then she caught herself. "I mean, it was delicious, it was divine!"
Netta's Chicken and Rice
Makes 4 to 6 servings
4 to 6 chicken thighs, skin on
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 cups rice
1 tablespoon oil
1 1/2 cups finely diced onion
1 cup finely diced celery
1 teaspoon dried thyme
3 cups water
1. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper and set aside.
2. Put rice in bowl and cover with hot, but not boiling, water. Stir once and let soak for 5 minutes. Let drain in fine strainer for 10 to 20 minutes. Discard water.
3. Heat oil in cast iron skillet. Brown chicken and set aside.
4. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat and saute onions and celery.
5. Add rice, toast till warm, and add salt, pepper and thyme.
6. Pour in the 3 cups water and stir.
7. Arrange the chicken thighs on top of the rice mixture.
8. Bake, uncovered, for about 45 minutes or until chicken is done and rice is tender.
Per serving (based on 6 servings and made with 6 thighs): 474 calories, 45 grams protein, 40 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 13 grams fat, 126 milligrams cholesterol, 140 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.