Quarantine, Cohabitation, and Ramen
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If you had told me ten years ago that in 2020 I’d be living in mandated social isolation in my weird old house in upstate New York with my friend Juliet, I would have asked what you were smoking. And yet, here we are!
This is the 52nd day since I took myself out for one last grocery store hurrah, marked out 14 days on my calendar, and stopped seeing friends or leaving the house unless absolutely necessary. Over the course of those 14 days, it became imminently clear that this whole shelter-in-place/isolation/social-distancing/quarantine thing was going to last a lot longer than two weeks, and that it would be quite a while until life returned to some version of normal.
Unlike most of my generation, I love using my cell phone to make calls. I can easily fill an hour over the phone with a friend under normal circumstances, and it was immediately obvious to me that this would be not only a survival strategy for myself (extrovert with introvert tendencies? sure, we’ll go with that.), but also one that could help friends and loved ones who were also isolating all by themselves—particularly those in small apartments and/or without easy access to outdoor space or room to move around. I, at least, have a whole house and a yard, and plenty to do, so I didn’t approach my own isolation with the same concern I had for the mental health of those people in my life.
This is how I ended up on the phone with one of my oldest friends, Juliet, who moved back to Brooklyn around a year ago after a 5-year stint in northern California.
Juliet and I are very different people. Juliet is a musician, with a lifestyle that feels—from my perspective as a premature geriatric—part and parcel with being a young artist in New York City. She rents a room in a formerly-industrial area of Brooklyn, with a kitchen and bathroom that she shares with her landlord. She, like, goes to clubs. For fun. She’s friends with DJs and can hold a conversation about styles of music I literally have never heard of, let alone heard. I’ve taken to calling it simply “vibe music,” as in, “can we listen to something that isn’t vibe music? It all sounds the same to me.” She travels light, criss-crossing the country in her 20s and somehow always settling into some kind of unique living situation that only Juliet would stumble across and make work. In California, she rented an attic bedroom in a house with a Pit Bull named Boner and an enormous Meyer lemon tree out back, which led to an insatiable thirst for fresh lemon juice that she carried home to the east coast. I, by contrast, buy those squeeze containers of lemon juice concentrate at the store that last for 6 months because I just can’t be bothered to cut a fresh slice every time I want to garnish a glass of ice water. I would be hard-pressed to identify a Meyer lemon if I saw one, and I do not know about vibe music.
We’ve known each other since freshman year of high school, but really only became good friends ten years ago when Juliet moved to Brooklyn the first time. She rented a room in a boarding house in Crown Heights, where she made music, worked a series of shitty jobs, and spent a lot of time hanging out with me in my Manhattan nest, a 400 square-foot apartment on East 83rd Street. It was an area of the city that, at the time, felt so isolated and far away from where anybody I knew was living, working, or doing anything at all. Both a bit disoriented and angsty about the future in that way that young 20-something creatives are famous for, I think our shared background became a point of comfort that bonded us as close friends, even when Juliet picked up and moved to the UK at the end of 2010. Since then we’ve probably seen each other once or twice a year for no more than a few days at a time, typically when Juliet has made her way up from the city to stay with me in Kingston. She doesn’t exactly have a guest room, and I can barely manage to leave the house even in the best of times. I don’t recall us ever having a fight, and I’ve always told her jokingly that she’s the one person I know who could really stay as long as she wanted, anytime, as a houseguest. She likes to cook; she cleans up after herself; she doesn’t demand so much time and attention that I can’t get anything else done—it always works out well.
Which brings us back ’round to this pandemic, and the first time I phoned Juliet after we all hunkered down. She’d been isolating longer than I had at this point, and it was wearing on her. I could hear it in her voice—this mix of fortitude, forced optimism, anxiety, uncertainty, and devastation over watching the city where she lives descend into ground zero of a public health crisis. I told her she could come stay with me here in Kingston if that would improve her situation—not honestly expecting it would happen—but by the time we spoke a day or two later, she’d mapped out her whole exit strategy and was ready for her upstate exodus. I ordered her a cheap queen-sized mattress from Amazon (the same one I have!) and prepared to reset my 14-day quaran-clock. We’d figure out the rest when she got here because, of course, Juliet always does.
So that’s how I ended up being less isolated in isolation than I tend to be in my everyday life. She arrived with a few suitcases, quickly selected the very in-progress “guest bedroom” as her quarters, and we set about turning it into a makeshift shelter. We stapled canvas drop clothes over the exposed studs, rolled out a rug, assembled Anna’s old bed from Newburgh, and wrangled furniture and lamps and art from around the house to make it resemble a real room as much as possible. Later on, we unearthed the piano from underneath my hoard. She’s fashioned the Hoard Room of Doom into something like a music studio—one with a corpse tub within arm’s reach, but a studio nonetheless.
We’ve been cohabiting for 7 weeks now, during which time Juliet has almost single-handedly kept me fed, taught Bungee to be a consummate gentleman while walking on a leash, helped me plant the raised beds with produce, assisted with renovating the cottage kitchen, filmed video for Instagram stories, taught herself to play Bennie and the Jets on piano, dropped a helluva music video on Youtube* (hey!! I DO like vibe music!!), and provided a constant source of entertainment and laughs and good spirits. We celebrated her 30th birthday with a party for two in the backyard, and we unwind nearly every night with a little conversation and TV time. I can’t really imagine what this time would have been like without Juliet here, but I’m glad I didn’t have to find out. I have no idea when New York will be at a point where it makes sense for Juliet to go home, but like I’ve said—stay as long as you need, my friend.
*If you want to support Juliet’s work, you can purchase her latest over on Bandcamp! Obviously musicians can’t play shows right now, so buy music when you can!
In all honesty, this new lifestyle we’re all experiencing isn’t all that different than how I normally live. Of course, not being able to go out and do things or see people is a recent development. I guess I mean that I’m not used to working a 9-5 in an office or taking kids to school in the morning who I now have to contend with 24 hours a day. This to say, there are people much more qualified than I am to instruct on how to make your life feel more normal during this time, so I won’t mount a high horse and try to tell you which yoga class to take on YouTube or explain how to structure your day or set up your new at-home workspace for success and productivity. Fuck if I know. With all the insanely weird ways Covid-19 has changed our lives, the weirdest for me personally is having a roommate—weirder still, a roommate I actually like. I didn’t know I had it in me!
Here’s what I will share. I’m not sure how or why this came about, but within an hour or two of Juliet’s arrival we’d decided to gussy ourselves up for a nice celebratory meal to ring in the beginning of her indefinite stay. I think during the meal, we committed to repeating the convention every night—in all likelihood imagining that this would all be over in a few weeks. And yet, with scant exception, we have. It creates a stark line between the workday and the evening, when I’m required to clean myself up, put on some nice clothes, and sit down for a meal. We sit at opposite ends of the dining table—a carryover from our initial feeble attempt to social distance from each other (which quickly proved futile) that we continue nonetheless. I think we’re both still tickled by the formality and comforted by the routine of it. Dinner is served on the nice dishes, the lights are dimmed, candles are lit, music plays, and we chat and eat and I have a cocktail. When we drink wine, it’s always out of the stemware. The ritual has quickly become the highlight of most of my days, and is the only thing that’s saved me from feeling like a dumpy mess who toggles only between work clothes and loungewear. An hour later, we strip off the formalwear, don the PJs, and settle down in front of the tube for an hour before retiring.
We really only break from this arrangement when a) the weather is nice and we eat in front of the fire in the backyard or b) on Fridays, when we’ve instituted a takeout/delivery policy for dinner and eat it in front of the TV. While I’m not a religious Jew and Juliet was raised Catholic, it’s how we’ve come to ring in the Sabbath.
Two other things have resulted from this schedule we keep. The first is that I’ve really had to explore my wardrobe—combining shirts and ties and sweaters in new and novel ways because repeating outfits feels lame and boring. The LEWKS I have put together, folks. Turns out I actually like my clothes! After Juliet made some fresh n’ funky purchases off Poshmark to supplement her slim wardrobe (we did not plan for this when she packed her bags!), I felt the need to up my fashion game, which I opted to do more through accessories rather than garments. So now I find myself covered in cheap man-jewelry from ASOS, which feels like an exciting and hilarious new sartorial direction for me. What better time than a pandemic to really stretch your style, amirite?
The OTHER thing, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the food. I shall not tell a lie: our food game has been TOP NOTCH. At the ripe age of 20, Juliet was a great cook even when we became close friends ten years ago, and her skills and instincts have only improved in the interim. I’ve taken to sharing most of these meals on Instagram Stories, which has naturally led to a lot of requests for recipes, which has normally led to the unsatisfying response that we mostly wing it and don’t actually have a recipe to share! So after talking it over between us, we’ve decided it’s only right that we standardize these meals into replicable formulas to share with you. Also known as a recipe. Juliet has agreed to share her secrets as well, but I’ll kick it off with one of my personal favorites: RAMEN.
Now. We are not talking about Top Ramen, as big a part of my diet as it has been throughout my life. You know how to make that already because it says right on the package. We’re talking about my highly unqualified version I’ve developed over the past few years. Tragically, Kingston is a ramen-less land, which is made all the more devastating because, in my previous life in Brooklyn, I was spoiled by a ramen shop around the corner from my apartment called Ganso. Sadly it is no longer there, perhaps because I moved and stopped supporting them multiple times a week. At one point, Max—my boyfriend at the time—placed a moratorium on going to the ramen place because my dependency was getting concerning.
The proprietor behind Ganso was a man named Harris Salat. Harris was a white guy—generally a red flag for an Asian restaurant, if you ask me—but he’d dedicated his life to the art of Japanese cooking and, aside from his restaurants, also wrote a few cookbooks that I reference from time to time. I love Harris. I miss Harris.
That being said, I’ve tried to replicate Harris’ ramen, and been largely unsuccessful. The traditional process is a little elaborate for me—involving a lot of pots and carefully-timed maneuvers to land at this one final, perfect bowl. I will fully admit just don’t have the constitution for it, and because my results weren’t exceptional I kind of lost steam on trying to develop myself into a restaurant-quality ramen master. So here’s my recipe. Harris, I’m sorry.
DANIEL KANTER’S RAMEN BOWL
(serves 2-4, depending on gluttony)
6 cups chicken broth
3 cups beef broth
2 sheets Kombu
1 T dashi
1 T soy sauce
2 T red miso paste
2 T chili garlic paste
1/4 cup butter
1 T toasted sesame oil
1 T japanese 7 spice (Togarashi)
1 piece star anise
2 gloves garlic, crushed
4 bundles Ramen noodles, just shy of al denté
Ground turkey or pork, mixed with 1 T Togarashi and sautéed in pan with 2 T sesame oil until cooked through
Sushi nori, cut into triangles or strips
Green Onions, sliced on the diagonal
Baby Bella Mushrooms, sliced
Mung Bean Sprouts
Cabbage, coarsely chopped
Shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced. Let these cook in the broth.
Extra Firm Tofu, cubed. Let these cook in the broth.
1. Combine all broth ingredients in a pot over medium heat and stir to combine. Let boil while you prepare everything else.
2. While the broth comes together, boil the ramen noodles until just shy of al dente. You can use a variety of brands, including Top Ramen without the flavor pack. I also like this one! Strain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process and set aside.
3. Cut ramen egg in half lengthwise and set aside. Prepare the rest of the toppings. Get creative! I’ve provided some suggestions above. See below for ramen egg instructions.
4. Heat broth to a rolling boil. Divide ramen noodles evenly among bowls. Add toppings. Pour broth over ingredients, top with ramen egg, and serve immediately with sriracha, chili garlic sauce, and/or tobanjan on the side.
RAMEN EGGS (from Japanese Soul Cooking):
1 Cup Water
1 Cup Soy Sauce
1/2 Cup Sake
1/4 Cup Mirin
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
2 scallions, trimmed and coarsely chopped
1 ounce ginger, skin on, crushed
2 pieces star anise
Place eggs in boiling water for 5-7 minutes, to taste. Place under cold running water or in ice bath until cooled, then peel. Whites should be firm and yolks should be anywhere from runny to soft, but not yet firm. Add the peeled eggs to the marinade and place in refrigerator for up to 12 hours (3-4 is usually good). Eggs will store in fridge for 1 week, and marinade can be reused a few times.
POOR MAN’S RAMEN PORK:
If using pork shoulder/belly, cut into thin slices. If using bacon, cut in half and remove from package. Arrange on a baking sheet in single layer. Mix together brown sugar and soy sauce and pour over slices, until well covered. Broil in oven until slices start to crisp and the sugar/soy mix begins to caramelize. Serve hot on top of completed ramen.