Cooking “The Goldfinch” Part 7: A Feast for Boris

by Cara Nicoletti on March 26, 2014

DSC01207

Really, this post could just be called “the day that dill, red onions, and vinegar took over Yummy Books,” because today we’re cooking for Boris. My feelings for Boris are among the most complicated I’ve ever had for any literary character, which is probably why it’s taken me so long to talk about him in this series. For ninety-percent of the novel, I was filled with gut-wrenching dread every time Boris showed up on the page. There were actually moments when I considered putting the book down completely because I was so overwhelmed by how much I disliked him. On one such occasion, I called my mom (who was reading the book at the same time) and told her that I didn’t think I could keep reading if Boris was going to stick around. She was flummoxed. Boris, it turned out, was her favorite character in the novel, and maybe one of her favorite literary characters ever.

DSC01062

A couple of weeks later, I showed up to my book club meeting to talk about The Goldfinch, thinking that my mom’s feelings about Boris were just an anomaly. I was wrong. All seven of the other girls immediately started gushing about how much they loved him, and I left feeling even more conflicted about Boris than ever.

The fact is, whether or not a character is likeable really doesn’t matter. I struggle with this concept, because reading a book feels a lot like meeting new people, and even when they’re fictional, it’s annoying to spend time with people you don’t like. Villains are often the most interesting character in a novel, but I’m not talking about villains here, I’m talking about regular old characters who you just don’t like. Book reviewers are constantly asserting that a novel’s main character wasn’t affable enough, that the narrator rubbed them the wrong way, that they would never want to hang out with the protagonist at a party, and as someone who loves to read I understand the impulse to criticize in this way. In the end though, it just doesn’t matter. Was the character dynamic? Original? Did he make you uneasy? These are the questions that matter, and in the case of Boris, the answer to all of these questions was, for me, Yes.

DSC01045

Of course, one of the things I actually liked about Boris was the culinary flavor he brought to the book. It was hard for me to choose just one scene for him, because his and Theo’s life in Las Vegas is so often consumed by what they are going to eat. They live mostly off of potato chips, stolen supermarket steaks, and the hot wings and tacquitos Xandra brings back from the casino. When Boris’s Eastern European tastebuds come through though, it’s a delight to read about. At one point, he and Theo shop for “potatoes; a chicken; sauerkraut, mushrooms, peas, sour cream…pumpernickel rolls; a pound of butter; [and] pickles…for some Polish holiday dish that Boris claimed he knew how to make” (285). My favorite meal takes place later on in the book, when he and Theo sit down to a meal in an East Village bar.

DSC01087

“Dziekuje,” he said to the waiter, who had reappeared with a tray of small plates: black bread, potato salad, two kinds of herring, cucumbers in sour cream, stuffed cabbage, and some pickled eggs.
“I didn’t know they served food here.”
“They don’t,” said Boris, buttering a slice of black bread and sprinkling it with salt. “But am starving. Asked them to bring something from next door.” He clinked his glass with mine. “Sto lat!” he said—his old toast.
“Sto lat.”The vodka was aromatic and flavored with some bitter herb I couldn’t identify.
…As soon as we’d drunk, Boris fell immediately on the food…He still ate with the innocent, gobbling hunger of a child.
(533-534)

After all of this talk of the unimportance of likability, the major cop-out here is that with time and distance I learned to really like Boris. His “innocent, gobbling hunger” and the deliciousness of this meal probably have something to do with my change of heart. I wanted to keep this meal simple, so I skipped the stuffed cabbage and two kinds of herring and focused on the lighter fare. The black bread here is the same recipe that I used for Les Miserables, which you can get here. The eggs are pickled alongside beets, which gives them a beautiful sweetness and an even prettier color. The potato salad has a heavy dose of spicy horseradish, and the cucumbers are bright with dill. Take this feast out for a picnic! Bring lots of vodka!

DSC01141

Pickled Beets & Eggs:
Ingredients:

4 small beets, scrubbed (about ¾-1 pound)
4 eggs large eggs, room temperature
1 cup cider vinegar
1 cup water
3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 dried chili de arbol (optional)
1 Tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 ½ Tablespoons kosher salt
½ a small red onion, cut into thin strips
6 dill sprigs

DSC01121

Directions:
Preheat oven to 450F. Wrap scrubbed beets in tinfoil and roast until fork-tender—about 1 hour. While the beets are roasting, take your eggs out of the refrigerator to come to temp.
Once the beets are tender, let them cool slightly. When they are cool enough to hold but still warm, peel the outer skin off by rubbing them with a clean towel. Quarter the beets and set them aside.
Fill a medium saucepan 2/3 of the way with water and bring it to a boil. Once the water has come to a rolling boil add your eggs and set a timer for 7 minutes. After 7 minutes, strain your eggs and run them under cold water. When they are cool to the touch, peel them under the cold running water and set the peeled eggs aside.
In the same saucepan, add your cider vinegar, water, garlic, sugar, chili, black pepper and salt. Bring the brine to a boil, whisking occasionally to make sure sugar dissolves. Allow brine to cool 15 minutes.
In a sterilized 1-quart glass jar, layer onions, dill sprigs, eggs and beets. Fill jar with warm brine and let it sit, uncovered, for two hours.
After two hours, cover and refrigerate overnight before serving. Pickled eggs will keep 1 week.

DSC01132

Horseradish Potato Salad
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Ingredients:
3 pounds small boiling potatoes
¼ cup diced red onion
1 Tablespoon cider vinegar
1 cup sour cream
2 Tablespoons de-stemmed and finely chopped fresh dill
¼ cup diced chives
1 Tablespoon whole-grain Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons prepared horseradish
salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Directions:
Fill a large pot 2/3 full with heavily-salted water and bring to a rapid boil. Add potatoes and boil until fork-tender—about 15 minutes.
While potatoes are boiling, whisk the rest of your ingredients together in a large bowl, tasting for salt and pepper.
Strain potatoes and quarter them. Add them to the bowl with the rest of the ingredients and toss gently until potatoes are coated.

DSC01138

Dill Cucumber Salad
Ingredients:
¼ cup sour cream
2 Tablespoons minced shallot or red onion
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
2 teaspoons diced fresh dill
salt and freshly-cracked black pepper
1 ½ English cucumbers, sliced as thinly as possible

Directions:
In a large bowl, whisk together sour cream, shallot, vinegar, and dill. Taste and add salt and pepper. Toss cucumbers in sauce and serve.

DSC01192

Cooking The Goldfinch Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

Don't forget to follow along for updates:

If there’s a literary food scene you want to see come to life be sure to leave me a comment and let me know! Or take a peek in the Recipe Index.

Leave a Comment

Susan Corson March 26, 2014 at 10:32 am

I know what you mean about Boris! He was such a fascinating character but you knew he was going to wreck havoc every time he appeared. This pickled stuff really appeals to my Russian roots!!

Reply

india March 26, 2014 at 2:03 pm

pickled eggs. one of my favorite treats but one that always seemed too hard to produce for a girl who doesn’t know her way around the kitchen that well. but you’ve inspired me. totally trying these this weekend. if they turn out okay, i’ll brag on instagram. cause yours are BEAUTIFUL.

Reply

Joanie March 26, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Thank you for another great post inspired by “The Goldfinch”!… Your musings and recipes really added to my enjoyment of this complex and amazing book!…

Reply

marcy March 26, 2014 at 5:33 pm

I can’t say that I ever hated Boris even though I struggled to comprehend him from time to time. I just never met anyone quite like him before, however he eats EXACTLY like my husband. (Who actually just now texted me that he had a ” hankering for hard boiled eggs.” I’m serious. Next time you’re back in the area please promise that you’ll come with me to his favorite Russian supermarket. Love the post, everything about it.

Reply

Alicia | Jaybird March 27, 2014 at 12:52 am

Beautifully written and photographed! Your series convinced me to finally read The Goldfinch, and I think I’m going to make the blueberry biscuits Pippa likes for an upcoming treat + recipe post! I get what you mean about the merits of dislikable characters. I didn’t like Boris very much either, if it makes you feel better. I felt the same way when reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom. His characters are, at times, too real in their flaws and frustrations. I sometimes felt it was hard to pick up a thread of sympathy for them in the midst of their struggles, even though the story was skillfully told. Have you read either of those books?

Reply

Seymour Salett March 27, 2014 at 9:20 pm

Cara,
your Goldfinch recipe reminds me of some of food my grandmother prepared .I can still “taste ” them in my minds eye. I would still enjoy those items if I could get my wife to make them.
Look forward to seeing you soon, maybe at a book signing .
best regards,
Seymour

Reply

Cara Nicoletti March 27, 2014 at 11:16 pm

Seymour,
I would love to make you all of these foods! I will be in Massachusetts very soon (my sister is having a baby!) maybe we can meet up and have a Russian feast.
Love,
Cara

Reply

Previous post:

Next post: