Sweet and Spicy Balsamic Vinaigrette

The February/March selection for Cook the Books was Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews.  Simona from  briciole is hosting.  Please see the announcement post here .

About the book:

IN THE GRAND SPY-TALE TRADITION OF JOHN LE CARRÉ . . . comes this shocking thriller written with insider detail known only to a veteran CIA officer.

In present-day Russia, ruled by blue-eyed, unblinking President Vladimir Putin, Russian intelligence officer Dominika Egorova struggles to survive in the post-Soviet intelligence jungle. Ordered against her will to become a “Sparrow,” a trained seductress, Dominika is assigned to operate against Nathaniel Nash, a young CIA officer who handles the Agency’s most important Russian mole.

Spies have long relied on the “honey trap,” whereby vulnerable men and women are intimately compromised. Dominika learns these techniques of “sexpionage” in Russia’s secret “Sparrow School,” hidden outside of Moscow. As the action careens between Russia, Finland, Greece, Italy, and the United States, Dominika and Nate soon collide in a duel of wills, tradecraft, and—inevitably—forbidden passion that threatens not just their lives but those of others as well. As secret allegiances are made and broken, Dominika and Nate’s game reaches a deadly crossroads. Soon one of them begins a dangerous double existence in a life-and-death operation that consumes intelligence agencies from Moscow to Washington, DC.

Page by page, veteran CIA officer Jason Matthews’s Red Sparrow delights and terrifies and fascinates, all while delivering an unforgettable cast, from a sadistic Spetsnaz “mechanic” who carries out Putin’s murderous schemes to the weary CIA Station Chief who resists Washington “cake-eaters” to MARBLE, the priceless Russian mole. Packed with insider detail and written with brio, this tour-de-force novel brims with Matthews’s life experience, including his knowledge of espionage, counterintelligence, surveillance tradecraft, spy recruitment, cyber-warfare, the Russian use of “spy dust,” and covert communications. Brilliantly composed and elegantly constructed, Red Sparrow is a masterful spy tale lifted from the dossiers of intelligence agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Authentic, tense, and entertaining, this novel introduces Jason Matthews as a major new American talent.

What I thought…

With only sixty pages left in the novel, I decided to re-watch the film version of Red Sparrow (2018).  I’m not sure that helped or hindered my opinion of the book.

The book follows Dominika, a budding ballet student in Russia.  A Tonya Harding-like accident befalls her and her career is over before it even starts.   She’s taken advantage of by her uncle, a high ranking official.  Her father is dead, her mother needs a place to live, and Dominika is the sole bread winner.  She’s pressed into service.   Betrayal after betrayal befalls her but she gets stronger and stronger.  Dominika starts out walking a straight party line but she soon sees what is happening to herself and her country.

Enter Nate Nash, a brash young and handsome CIA agent.  He begins recruiting Dominika as she begins a surveillance on him.  A rocket scientist is not needed to see where this is heading.

If you’ve seen the film version, just know that the endings are totally different.   On another note, the film is much darker than the novel.   Gable, another CIA agent, adds some much needed humor to the mix in the book.

I know that Matthews was going for authenticity but all the acronyms got annoying to me as did some of the bureaucracy.  I do appreciate the wrap up in the book and that it is not the typical happy ending, leaving a lot for speculation.

The book also gave me pause as I was reading it at the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis.  Putin is a character in the book.

The Food

Matthews ends each chapter with a very terse recipe.  Some of these recipes are Russian traditional foods but I did not want to make a Russian dish.   I initially wanted to create a Ukraine recipe in solidarity.   But, Matthews includes many recipes in these chapters, everything from recipes from Rome and Finland to American foods.

I thought about shchi, a traditional dish that Dominika’s mother makes for her after she is released from brutal questioning (241).  Again, though, I didn’t want to highlight a Russian dish.

Pasta con le Sarde (256) was the meal that MARBLE shared with his new handler as he himself planned his own demise.  Not really a scene to celebrate, but the fennel, onions, pine nuts, raisins and anchovies sounded delicious.

MARBLE again cooks as he tries to bring Dominika into the plan.  He makes a simple rustic tomato sauce (319).

As Nate lunches with other CIA employees, there’s a simple salad dressing that just spoke to me.

Sophie’s Vinaigrette

Combine pureed garlic, dill weed, dried oregano, dried pepper flakes, Dijon mustard, sugar, salt, pepper, and grated Parmesan cheese with one part balsamic vinegar and three parts extra virgin kalamata olive oil and emulsify. (262)

After reading this book of espionage, set in Russia with Putin as a character, I just wanted to make something simple.

Sweet and Spicy Balsamic Vinaigrette


Based on “Sophie’s Vinaigrette” (listed above)


  • 1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 c. balsamic vinegar
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 t. Dijon
  • 1 t. honey
  • 1/2 t. dill weed
  • 1/2 t. oregano
  • 1/8 t. red chili flakes  (Add up to 1/4 t. for more heat.)
  • 2 T. finely grated Parmesan
  • 1/2 t. fine sea salt
  • 1/4 t. ground pepper


  1. Place all ingredients in a pint jar and shake.
  2. The dressing is best if you let it set at room temperature for about an hour.
  3. Place in refrigerator for storing.  Remove and bring to room temperature before serving.

Yield: just under 1 cup

I agree with Nate’s description of this recipe:  “The dressing had a balsamic sweetness cut with Dijon and a hint of heat, unlike any vinaigrette he had ever tasted” (261). 

The salad I created had bits and pieces of things from the veggie drawer—shaved Brussels sprouts, shaved radicchio, some baby kale and some chard cut into ribbons.  (The last two ingredients came from the greenhouse, the first two from last week’s farm bag.)   I added some red quinoa that I also had precooked in the fridge, some hard boiled eggs, and a bit of smoked goat cheese.  Loved it!

I did enjoy the novel and might pick up the sequel, Palace of Treason, if only just to see if recipes are included in that follow-up book.  Thanks to Simona for hosting!  Check out the round up soon at Cook the Books.

The April/May selection is Taste by Stanley Tucci.  I have started it and am loving it!  Find out about all of our new selections here.

I’m linking up with Foodies Read for March as well.

10 comments to Sweet and Spicy Balsamic Vinaigrette

  • This vinaigrette would be fantastic for any grain salad!

  • mae

    Russian and Ukrainian foods are not extremely different. Until recently, cookbooks treated Ukraine as a region of Russia (which is what Putin wants to recreate). So there would be only a few Ukrainian recipes. I think there will soon be some cookbooks dedicated to the difference. The terror of war makes us all think about who the Ukrainians are, it seems.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

  • You did a bang up review! I think I ought to have given more detail in mine. The vinaigrette looks like a good recipe.

  • It was something reading this novel as Russia invaded Ukraine. It more than gave me pause. I completely understand why you needed something simple to make and this vinaigrette was a great choice.

  • I’ve not heard of that author or the book. Sounds interesting. But it’s this recipe that really captures my interest! This looks super — thanks.

  • The dressing sounds good and must have been perfect for your terrific salad.

  • The vinaigrette whispered to me too. I am glad you made it and liked it. The salad looks great! I am also thinking of reading the second novel. Thank you so much for your contribution to this edition of Cook the Books 🙂

  • cathy branciaroli

    It’s that time of year for thinking fresh and light, so a salad/dressing sounds just right

  • I’m definitely going to be making this vinegar! YUM!

  • I thought about making this dressing as well and I am going to have to try it now. Thanks for sharing with Souper Sundays.