Cooking and Covid-19: We Can All Be Like Beyoncé

Husband and I spent part of Memorial Day weekend doing something so normal: We planted tomatoes, herbs, squash, eggplant and a few other vegetables in our little urban raised beds. But, of course, we are all oceans away from normal. To me, staying home and staying isolated lately feels a bit like the tale of the boy with his finger in the dike. We may soon be washed away by those who are eager to be out and about. If you go to church, the mall or the beach, you won’t see me, but I hope you are safe.

May 7, Thursday

Plenty of people are getting tired of cooking every meal, every day (more on that later). I get that, and it’s one reason I love leftovers. It also is a reason to love ways to cook that require little effort. Here are a couple such dishes that also make great leftovers. Having recovered as an adult from the canned sliced beets of my childhood, I love fresh beets now, with their sweet deep flavor and gorgeous colors.

First, the raw beet and carrot salad here takes no cooking. There are many versions out there if you want a recipe. The salad is essentially a pound of raw, peeled beets (3 or 4, depending on the size) and two large carrots, shredded by hand on a box grater or in a food processor. And a dressing. I used lemon juice, olive oil, a teaspoon of ground cumin, salt and pepper. You could use toasted caraway seeds, or coriander if you like. Mix the dressing ingredients, add to the salad, and top with about a half cup of chopped parsley. In another time, I’d say this is a great contribution to a summer party. Now you get to eat it all with your housemates.

And the second one is a dish you may have eaten in a restaurant. It’s got a great combination of colors and flavors and consistencies. For this one, take a few cooked beets (roast or boil, your choice, until they can be easily pierced with a sharp knife). Peel them and cut them into manageable pieces. The rest of the salad is toasted walnuts and feta cheese. You can add cilantro if you like. And a dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. No lemons? Try sherry vinegar, even balsamic. No feta? Goat cheese will do.

And don’t forget that the beet greens are delicious, too. If you don’t want to eat them right away, boil them, drain them and freeze them for a soup.

May 11, Monday

The Meyer lemon tree in our tiny front yard has given us an extraordinary amount of fruit this year. But even for people without a tree, it’s easy to end up with lots of lemons — perhaps a bagful from the store when you needed only a tablespoon or two of juice, now that we seem to be buying more “just in case.”

My reaction is “lucky you.” Not “poor you,” the person stuck making lemonade, as the saying goes. That saying is more than a century old but still resonates. Take Beyoncé’s 2016 album, named “Lemonade” in honor, she said, of her husband’s grandmother saying, “I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”

Beyoncé clearly did the same.

To the extent the saying suggests the ability to make do, that’s just right, exactly where we are in a pandemic that has many of us doing our best to stay away from stores. I made lemon curd, roasted lemons with vegetables and with chicken, jarred lemon marmalade, preserved lemons, and made salad dressing, lemon cookies, lemon rice, kombucha and more. My friend Stephanie made a delicious gluten-free lemon cake for us (Husband is gluten-free).

I failed to make lemonade this spring but I do love it. The Mongols in 1299 were the first people recorded to drink it, according to the historian Margaret Visser. She also wrote, “A modern kitchen without a lemon in it is gravely ill-equipped.” I love that, too.

I preserve lemons regularly. It’s so easy to just cut them open, add salt and stuff them in a jar. But this year, I used the brilliant Paula Wolfert’s preserved lemons recipe from her book “World of Food.” It’s still very simple, just four ingredients. You cut 2 clean, dried lemons into eighths, toss them with 1/3 cup kosher salt and put them in a jar that just fits them. Add ½ cup fresh lemon juice. Secure the tops, let them sit on the counter for a week, shaking the jar each day. After a week, add olive oil to cover and refrigerate. They will last six months.

Maybe you’re getting the idea that you cannot have too many lemons. You can freeze the juice and, separately, the zest. The zest — the outer edge of the peel, without the bitter pith — is packed with flavor. Fresh is better, generally, but making do is best.

My friend Neil Newman did as Beyoncé did when in the early 1980s he had left a studio job and found himself at home, reading a Fine Cooking magazine story about limoncello and noticing his bountiful lemon tree. Now he makes dozens of bottles every year as gifts. He’s become a master, I can attest, turning out a beautiful clear yellow liqueur using zest, vodka and as little sugar as he can. The first time the lemons came from his tree; now he needs so many he takes donations, too.

Speaking of cocktails, the Lemon Drop is a lovely way to use a lemon. One version calls for 2 ounces vodka, ½ ounce of orange liqueur, and an ounce each of simple syrup and lemon juice. Plus an additional lemon for slices to go on the glass. It gets shaken and poured into a coupe glass with the rim dipped in lemon juice and then sugar (so fancy, remember to hold your pinky out).

Husband made mine with an extra citrus jolt; our simple syrup was already flavored with citrus from the candied peel I’d made.

Just one more recipe. My friend, the cookbook writer Martha Rose Shulman, is always ready to serve a lemon tart in just half an hour. An amazing feat made possible because her freezer always holds a tart crust and pre-measured bags of lemon juice and sugar ready to go. I also like that while she calls for Meyer lemons, she notes any lemon will do. Here’s her recipe for a nine-inch tart.

Meyer Lemon (or regular Lemon) Tart

1 9-inch pâte sucrée, fully baked

175 g / 2/3 cup strained freshly squeezed Meyer lemon (or regular lemon) juice

110 g / 1/2 cup sugar

60 g / 3 T crème fraiche

4 eggs

1. Preheat oven to 350ºF with rack positioned in the middle.

2. Whisk together the lemon juice and sugar. When the sugar has dissolved, whisk in the crème fraiche. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time. (If making batches ahead for the freezer, whisk together the lemon juice and sugar until the sugar has dissolved and freeze.)

3. Place the tart pan on a baking sheet. Carefully pour in the filling, making sure that the filling doesn’t go higher than the edge of the crust. Bake 25 to 30 minutes. The tart should be just set. If baked too long it will crack.

4. Remove from the heat and cool on a rack.

Maybe you can have that tart with dinner tonight? I promise not to tell if you buy your crust, though if you have flour, the crust is easy to make.

One more favorite of mine. Slice raw zucchini into long ribbons, add fresh oregano or thyme, olive oil and lemon juice (a popular pair), salt and pepper. Toss. Top with crumbled goat or feta cheese. So absurdly delicious for how easy it is.

May 22, Friday

Growing food is a healing experience. It works that way even if you’re only growing a few herbs in a window box, or the Covid-era jar of scallions growing in water. I used to run a small nonprofit that had a farm south of downtown Los Angeles. Some days, I’d see dirt in my wrinkles on my way home, often just beat. But it was a glorious job, and I try to grow as much as I can in my tiny urban yard. But I also started spending a few hours a week in a large garden, helping a friend who is running it. There are horses and chickens and ducks. Allegedly, we are helping the nonprofit Taking the Reins. But I could argue it’s me being helped.

Dan Harris, a journalist and author of the meditation book “Ten Percent Happier,” said in a recent interview that one way to get through the pandemic with equanimity is to do service — shopping for a neighbor, cooking for front-line workers, or other sorts of safe volunteering. That, he said, can pull us out of our self-obsessed inner dialogues. I heartily agree.

One dialogue I wish people would just keep inner is the Covid-19 fat jokes. I get it; we might be eating more than normal in our boredom or frustration. But I don’t want to see any more cartoons of a bunch of fat women who became that way in the pandemic. Or even, about the Covid-19 as in pounds gained, compared with the freshman 15 college joke. Just stop making fun of weight. Period.

May 25, Monday

I clearly recall the day I realized I could not be a free-lance writer at home while I cared for our infant and 2-year-old. I was in the bedroom, conducting an interview for an assignment I honestly never quite understood — something about environmental audits — with an expert I didn’t understand. At the same time, I was nursing the baby desperately hoping he would not cry and watching the toddler crawl around desperately hoping he would not get hurt. You’ll be not the least surprised to know that I hung up the phone with less than an iota’s idea what that expert said.

From there to women in Covid-19 is, unfortunately, a fairly straight line. A few weeks ago, a friend asked how I was doing, and without thinking I said I felt like a housewife. And early research is showing I am far from alone.

That research is showing that — drumroll — while men are doing more household chores, women are still doing the majority of the work. Even husbands who share chores like laundry often don’t help much with the invisible work — keeping track of what size shoes the kids wear, or when it’s their best friend’s birthday, or all that at-home schoolwork.

Now that more people are working from home, it’s impossible to ignore “the fact that women bear so much more of the burden of child care and housework,” Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab, a work-life, gender equity and social policy program at the New America think tank, told Terry Gross in an interview on her radio show “Fresh Air.”

I want to acknowledge, with awe and appreciation, the many women and men who toil alone and are earning the money, teaching their children and running their homes. And to be fair, the lion’s share of cleaning in my house is being done by Husband. But there’s much more to running a home than running a vacuum.

The default remains that it’s women who get the work of the home and children done. But Schulte said the pandemic has created an opportunity for couples to talk productively about the distribution of household tasks.

Optimism. It’s a good thing.

That’s it for now; thanks for reading. If life hands you a bucket of lemons … rejoice!

(A little about me: I’ve been cooking for 55 years. And writing about food for a few decades. When my day sucks, I find my equilibrium by walking in the door, dropping my things and starting cooking.)

Longtime food writer, now food grower. Journalist, reader, traveler

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