The Gravy: In the Kitchen with Barbara Menendez

Barbara Menendez cooking crawfish stew for The Gravy. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

The Gravy with Barbara Menendez. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

“My son Weston, who is also in my band (the Help), he put it to me this way about cooking. He likes to cook because I’ve always cooked, and I said to Weston, ‘You know, one day, everything that you’ve ever learned about cooking just gels, and it’s like an epiphany.’ And he goes, ‘Like jazz!’ and I’m like, ‘Exactly! It’s like the day you understand jazz.’ I love how he said that. Basic cooking is like building a foundation for any structure in the construction business. You can build anything on top of it. You just need to know how to make a solid foundation.

The cooking I do, I guess it’s indicative of New Orleans. Low and slow. People ask me to make gumbo, debris, stews. I make jambalaya too, a white jambalaya with chicken—thighs have the most flavor—and you fry them, take them out, and then into the fat you throw tons of onion and some bell pepper, cover and cook that down for 20 minutes and then you add your dry rice into the juices that came out of the vegetables and cover and let that cook for a while; then you throw in the sausage. I like andouille sausage for everything. I heard, ‘You never put andouille in red beans,’ but get out! Andouille’s the best. Then you put your chicken back in, add water and then garlic at the end. If you sauté garlic, it pales too much and loses its punch.

[Meowing] That’s my cat in there, sequestered. She actually can’t come out because she’ll jump up here and put her face in the crawfish. She’ll put her face in your sandwich, and she’ll go, ‘Oh, hi, thanks.’ I love her to death, but my biggest fear is getting hair in the food.

I make my roux fast. You start when you’re 20 doing it low and slow because you’re terrified, but I’m 50 and I get how to do this and I’m not going to burn it and I’m not going to be here forever. The other thing I do is I use olive oil. The earthier the dish, the more I prefer olive oil. When you start your roux, just ignore it for a minute. If I start spazzing about it, it’s like watching water boil; it never happens. So just wait. But once it’s hot, you’ve got to pay attention because it turns quick.

I first made this recipe when I was pregnant with Weston, and he’s 27. I originally got it from Justin Wilson. I don’t believe recipes, usually. It’s art; it’s a spiritual thing. You’re adding your own love, your own stuff. People should just relax when they’re trying to cook, get their own channel going. Emeril, who I love dearly, his whole ‘kicking it up a notch’—I’m sorry. Everything doesn’t need to be kicked up. Creole cooking is a lot subtler than that.

The first thing I ever learned to cook was red beans and rice from Dolores Tillman. I call her my mom. I was born in 1960 and grew up in Lake Vista, which was sort of the Northshore of those days. Dolores came to work for my mother when I was 10 months old, and she worked for my mom for 23 years. I used to pull my chair up and watch her cook. She was from Honduras, had nine children of her own, helped my mom raise her seven. The way she makes red beans is how I make red beans. Basically, you chop everything big and throw it in the pot. You don’t soak your beans overnight, you just cook it for four hours until it becomes this creamy goodness. A half stick of butter, a pot spoon of ketchup. Onion, garlic, carrots, pickled pork—I put andouille sausage. But now, I brown my vegetables first, and they’re not only great, they’re amazing. It’s just that extra bit of love that makes the difference.

My mom cooked, well, she tried. That’s mean, but she had Dolores. She didn’t have to; Dolores cooked. Dolores did everything. She always made red beans and rice on Monday, and the best fried chicken in the world! It’s just salt, pepper, flour and chicken, but the secret is that the oil has to be fresh and you shake the excess flour off, don’t let it get gummy or anything. Wash the chicken, cut it up in pieces, sprinkle it with salt and pepper—generously; I’m heavy-handed like her. And she’d get a big brown grocery bag and put flour in there and throw that chicken in there and shake it up—genius. I told her, ‘You’ve got to be lying to me,’ and she said, ‘No, baby. That’s it.’

When did I last see her? Was it a year ago? Yes, it was. Because I go by my weight. Like a year ago, September. There’s an SNL skit called ‘Cooking with the Anal Retentive Chef.’ He’d chop up something and end up putting it in the garbage because it wasn’t perfect and then he had to get it ready for the garbage. I do that. In little Ziploc bags, so it won’t stink. [Holds up bag, zipping it shut.] See, isn’t that nice? [laughs]


Barbara’s Crawfish Stew

Barbara Menendez cooking crawfish stew for The Gravy. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Photo by Elsa Hahne.

3 lbs Louisiana crawfish tails
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup olive oil
1 3/4 cup flour
8 cups chopped Vidalia onion
3/4 chopped celery
1 bunch parsley, leaves only, chopped
3/4 cup chopped green bell pepper
1 jalapeño seeded and chopped
1/4 cup (1 head) chopped garlic
4 (8-oz) bottles clam juice

Season crawfish with salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper. Prepare roux, using olive oil and flour, a dark chocolate brown. Turn heat down and add onion, celery, parsley, bell pepper and jalapeño and sauté for a few minutes. Cover and simmer over low heat for 1 hour until it becomes a bubbly ooze (periodically scrape and stir so it doesn’t burn). Add seasoned crawfish and garlic, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Add clam juice and keep cooking over low heat for up to 1 hour. Add more salt to taste. Serve over rice.

  • Kathe C. Watson

    Love to cook. Barbara, I would love to meet you. I have a small spa in Covington, Aromatica. Our paths have crossed many times. Like your crawfish stew recipe!