Our current Cook the Books Club selection is the spy novel Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews1. I chose this book for our Club in early June 2021. I had no idea that by the time I started reading it, it would feel like current events. It was hard to believe the book was published in 20132.
While I am an avid reader of mystery novels, this was my first experience reading a spy novel. I was attracted to it because each chapter ends with a short recipe (ricetta): more a list of ingredients and a sketch of the preparation than a real recipe. Still the contrast is intriguing.
The author is a former officer of the CIA’s Operations Directorate, so he wrote the novel from a place of personal experience. I was interested in the language (acronyms and some spy jargon) and the window the novel opens on the mechanics of some secret operations. I found the main characters in the novel interesting, in terms of how they end up doing what they do and also with respect to the question: how do they keep their humanity? How do they maintain friendships, marriages? Those relationships are rooted in trust, openness, sincerity, and yet the spy's main role is to dissimulate and violence, some of it quite brutal (torture, murder) is part of the job.
As the story travels to different countries, the recipes span a number of culinary traditions. When the novel moved to Helsinki, I looked for Finnish recipes, since an important part of the novel takes place in the Nordic capital: that's where Dominika meets and falls in love with CIA operative Nate, and befriends fellow Russian Marta, whose disappearance pushes Dominika to step over to the other side. In my search, I read about rosolli, a salad
made of cooked, diced root vegetables, especially beetroot, carrot and potato, often combined with one or more of pickled cucumber (of either the vinegar or brine type), raw onion and apple. Variations may also include additional ingredients such as pickled herring or boiled egg...3
Then in chapter 40, I read:
On the way back to Tallinn, Benford stopped at a highway café grill, to see how the Lada would react. Surveillance proceeded two hundred meters and waited on the side of the highway. Benford made himself stretch out a lunch of boiled sausages, pickles, herring, Baltic rosolje salad, black bread, dark loamy beers.
and a recipe for Estonian Beet Salad—Rosolje appears at the end of the chapter, signaling that various versions of this dish are typical of the larger Baltic region. In fact,
Similar dishes are found throughout northern Europe, from the Low Countries across Scandinavia to Russia. Especially the Russian vinegret is very similar to the Finnish rosolli.3
The salad I made is a free interpretation: I roasted red beets and carrots, omitted potatoes, pickles, herring and the "cooked beef or pork" mentioned in the book's version, used my homemade mayonnaise (maionese) as dressing and added blue cheese (formaggio erborinato). The combination is quite nice: sweet, tender vegetables, crisp apple, egg, a hint of sharpness in the cheese. You can roast the vegetables ahead of time, then assemble the salad right before the meal. I imagine preparing the ingredients and allow the guests to make their own salad, which can be served also as an appetizer (antipasto).
Ingredients per person (to be multiplied as needed):
- 2 small red beets
- 2 small carrots
- 1 large egg, from pastured poultry
- 1/2 medium apple
- 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
- A pinch of freshly ground black pepper
- A splash of sherry vinegar, to taste
- 1-2 tablespoons / 15-30 ml mayonnaise, possibly homemade, to taste
- 1/2 ounce / 15 grams Point Reyes Bay Blue4 OR other sweet blue cheese
Note: I recommend you purchase a bunch of red beets with their greens. Cut off the greens about 1 inch / 2.5 cm from the root and consume them as soon as possible like you would other types of dark leafy greens.
Heat the oven to 375 F / 190 C.
Scrub the red beets well. Scrub the carrots well and scrape the surface with a blade to remove a thin layer of skin. Wrap each in foil and place them on a baking sheet. Put in the oven and roast the vegetables until easily pierced with a blade. Check the carrots after 30 minutes and the beets after 45 minutes and gauge the cooking time remaining for each.
Let the carrots cool until easy to handle, then slice them (half the slices if the carrot is wide) and set them aside. Let the red beets cool until easy to handle, then slip off the skin. Cut the beets in bite-sized pieces and set them aside.
In the meantime, hard-boil the egg, let it cool, then peel it and dice it. Crumble the cheese. Just before assembling the salad, dice the apple (peeling optional).
Compose the salad using the vegetables, apple and egg. Season with salt, pepper and vinegar and toss. Add the mayonnaise and toss, then add the blue cheese, toss one last time, and serve.
1 The book's page on the publisher's website
2 A review of the novel on the NY Times
3 The wikipedia article about rosolli and a recipe for rosolli on the Finlandia Foundation website
4 Point Reyes Bay Blue cheese, "a rustic-style blue cheese with a natural rind. It is known for its mellow flavor and sweet, salted caramel finish."
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the insalata di barbabietola rosse, carote, mela e uovo sodo audio file [mp3].
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FTC disclosure: I have received the table linen free of charge from the manufacturer (la FABBRICA del LINO). I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for presenting it on my blog. The experience shared and the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.