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.
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.
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.
“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.
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!
Pickled Beets & Eggs:
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
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.
Horseradish Potato Salad
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
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
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.
Dill Cucumber Salad
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
In a large bowl, whisk together sour cream, shallot, vinegar, and dill. Taste and add salt and pepper. Toss cucumbers in sauce and serve.