Monday, May 6, 2024

On Count Rostov's Plate: Chicken Saltimbocca

1922, sometimes referred to as the "year that sealed the fate of Russia." It had been five years since the October Revolution, which led to the overthrow (and execution) of the Tsar and his family. The revolution turned into a civil war between the "reds" (the Bolsheviks, who supported Marxism) and the "whites" (those who favored other ideologies). However, by 1922, the civil war was over and the Bolsheviks and their Communist Party had control over Russia for almost one year. The leader of the Communist Party, Vladimir Lenin, had been looking back over the year and making plans for the future. the tide clearly favored the reds by 1922; and, their leader, Vladimir Lenin, was making plans for the future. He laid out those plans at the 11th Congress of the Russian Communist Party met between March 27 and April 2, 1922. 

It was also at the 11th Congress that Josef Stalin began his rise through the ranks, being appointed as the Communist Party's first Secretary General.  One month later, Lenin would suffer a stroke, and Stalin would take over Lenin's health care. Thus, by May 1922, Russia's path toward a communist economy and totalitarian state was sealed, as was its fate. 

Just one month later, so was the fate of the (fictional) Count Alexander Iliych Rostov. Summoned before the Emergency Committee of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the Count had to answer for his past and his status. The committee ultimately found that the Count guilty of succumbing to the corruptions of his class, and, it sentenced him to house arrest. (For more details, you should buy and read the book.) The Count would live out the rest of his life at the Metropol hotel.

After returning to the hotel, and after having been shown his new arrangements, the Count made his way to the Boyarsky restaurant. The restaurant had Moscow's "most elegant decor, its most sophisticated waitstaff, and its most subtle chef de cuisine," Chef Emile Zhukovsky. The maitre d' sat Alexander at a table and he waited for his first meal since being confined to the hotel. 

The Boyarsky

Sitting at his table, Alexander waited for his first meal. Yet, to put it in context, Author Amor Towles excellently laid the groundwork for readers as they also waited. As Towles wrote: 

In the Revolution's aftermath - with its economic declines, failed crops, and halted trade - refined ingredients became as scare in Moscow as butterflies at sea. The Metropol's larder was depleted bushel by bushel, pound by pound, dash by dash, and its chef was left to meet the expectations of his audience with cornmeal, cauliflower, and cabbage - that is to say, with whatever he could get his hands on.

(Pg. 27.) That was the life of most everyone in 1922. Still reeling from years of war, the early days of Communist Russia were often characterized by shortages, especially when it came to food. 

This scarcity meant that, while Alexander may have ordered a specific dish, the meal he received may not be entirely consistent with his expectations. This point was underscored by Towles' description of the meal served to the Count:

a saltimbocca fashioned from necessity. In place of a cutlet of veal, Emile had pounded flat a breast of chicken. In place of prosciutto de Parma, he had shaved a Ukrainian ham. And in place of sage, that delegate leaf that binds the flavors together? He had opted for an herb that was as soft and aromatic as sage, but more bitter to the taste.... It wasn't basil or oregano, of that the Count was certain, but he had definitely encountered it somewhere before....

(Pg. 27.) The herb was nettle. Substitution became an essential part of cooking and eating. Unable to get the necessary ingredients, due to the lack of trade, the chef had to make due with what he could find. Rather than complain, the Count made the best of his circumstances and enjoyed the dish.  

Stinging Nettle Leaves (Source: Food52)

For my first post, I wanted to prepare the chicken saltimbocca in the same manner as Chef Zhukovsky. The chef had to make three substitutions: (1) chicken for veal; (2) Ukrainian ham for prosciutto; and (3) nettle for sage. I found myself in the identical position as the Chef, but for entirely different reasons. I did not face any shortages of veal, prosciutto or sage. I could easily go to any store and purchase those ingredients. I faced a shortage of what Chef Zhukovsky had on hand, namely Ukrainian ham and nettles. I made some efforts to find these ingredients, but with no success.

In the end, I decided to take a chicken saltimbocca recipe from the New York Times and made some modifications to produce a recipe that, if I had the ingredients, I could make. I nevertheless made the recipe anyways, using what I have on hand. Hence, a saltimbocca made with chicken, prosciutto and sage. 


Recipe adapted from The New York Times

Serves 4 to 6


  • 1.5 pounds of boneless chicken breast cut into 4 ounce pieces
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of chopped nettle, plus 24 large nettle leaves (substitute sage)
  • 2 garlic cloves, smashed to a paste
  • 1 pinch crushed red pepper (optional)
  • Olive oil
  • 6 thin slices Ukrainian ham (substitute prosciutto or other thinly sliced ham)
  • 6 slices of fontina cheese


1.  Prepare the chicken. Using a meat mallet, pound the chicken to flatten a bit. Salt and pepper each piece on both sides and place on a plater. Sprinkle with chopped nettle (or sage), garlic, red pepper flakes (if using) and olive oil. Massage in the seasoning to distribute, cover and marinate at room temperature for one hour, or refrigerate for up to several hours). 

2. Crisp the nettle (sage). Heat a wide skillet over medium heat and add 3 teaspoons olive oil. When the oil looks wavy, add the nettle (sage) leaves and let them crisp for about 30 seconds. Remove and drain. 

3. Brown the chicken. Brown the chicken breasts in the oil for about 2 minutes per side, then transfer to a baking dish large enough to fit them in one layer.

4. Broil the chicken. Top each piece with 2 sage leaves, a slice of Ukrainian ham (or prosciutto) and a slice of cheese. Broil for 2 to 3 minutes, until the cheese is bubbling. Garnish with the remaining nettle (or sage) leaves. 

P.S.: I know the chicken breast is a little thick for chicken saltimbocca. I could not find my meat mallet. Apparently, it had been seized as property of the people and now it is lost. 

P.S.S.: On a more serious note, by the end of 1922, the Soviet Union emerges with the compact between Russia, Belarussia, Ukraine and the Caucusus states (Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan). Stalin is also on his way to consolidating power. 

Until next time...


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