The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

If I could have any set of books with me on a desert island, I’d choose the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, the Johannes Cabal books by Jonathan L. Howard, and The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series by the one and only Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This mysterious, lyrical, dark and yet oddly uplifting series, set in Barcelona before, during and after their bloody Civil War, sucked me in from the first two books The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, and the third one, The Prisoner of Heaven, is just as enthralling.

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Here, we pick up the threads of Daniel Sempere, the protagonist from the first book. He is married, has a baby boy, is running his family bookstore, and continues his friendship with the jester-like Fermin Romero de Torres, who is one of the funniest characters in literature. Fermin is a hoot!

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The Prisoner of Heaven is the third book centering around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, but if you haven’t read the other two novels, The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, (both of which I have previously blogged) don’t let that stop you from picking this one up – because you see, Zafón has done something brilliant and perfectly fitting with these books. You can start with any book and read them in any order, and they all remain connected through this one, single, perfect place. In this book the story of Fermin Romero de Torres is detailed out piece by fascinating piece, and Daniel is given more information on the history of his parents. The relationship between Daniel and Bea is also in question – and references to both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game crop up throughout the book in, sometimes, the most surprising of places.

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You can also clearly see Ruiz Zafón’s love for the works of Dumas and in particular, The Count of Monte Cristo. I mean, a secret prisoner, a Gothically dark and unbearable prison, the oddly beautiful way he describes dirt and corruption, making these otherwise revolting elements such a strong part of the overall narrative. Dumas seems to exert a non-stop fascination for modern writers in the Gothic tradition, which makes sense if you think about it. Secret passages, secret identities, secret loves……..all those literary elements that hook us and fascinate us still.

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However, the darkness that seems to live around every corner in post-war Barcelona is well on display here. Barcelona herself is as much a character in this book as anyone else, both the inherent beauty and mystery of this city, as well as its moody darkness and the gorgeous and run-down amusement park atop Mount Tibidabo, which featured prominently in both previous books and is still a huge part of the overall framework here. I can’t imagine these books taking place in any other place in the world, so strongly do they connect to the seedy, dark, violent and beautiful metropolis that is Barcelona.

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There are not too many food references in this book, but that’s ok because I was inspired by one of my favorite cookbooks of all time, The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman. His method for making that classic Spanish dish huevos a la flamenco, or flamenco-style eggs, is so yum that I had to recreate it in honor of Fermin’s eternal love of serrano ham. The nice thing about this particular method is that you can scale it up or down depending on how many people you’re serving, with the ratio of 1-2 eggs per person.

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup cubed ham, Serrano preferably but use whatever you can find
1/2 cup chorizo
1 cup chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned
4 eggs
1/2 cup cooked green peas (use frozen bagged ones here)
4-6 strips roasted red peppers, from a jar
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 415F, and in a cast-iron skillet, heat the olive oil and toss in the ham and chorizo. Cook until nicely browned.

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Chop up the tomatoes and line the bottom of four oven-safe ramekins with them.

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Spoon in the cooked ham and chorizo.

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Crack an egg over the tomatoes and meat mixture and season lightly with salt and pepper.

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Toss a spoonful of peas over each egg yolk.

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Add 3-4 strips of roasted red pepper on top of the peas.

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Bake for 15 minutes, or until the egg whites have set but the yolk is still a bit runny, because you need that unctuous golden ooziness to make this dish truly fantastic.

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Allow to cool while you toast some bread – we had green chile cheddar bagels –  and serve, dipping your bread into the nice, gooey egg yolk as you go. So delicious and quintessentially Spanish. ¡Olé!

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The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruíz Zafón

My game plan is to blog all of Carlos Ruíz Zafón’s quartet of books featuring The Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Barcelona, which is also one of my favorite cities in the world, before September, which is when the fourth and final installment of this amazing series ends. I previously blogged the first book in the series, The Shadow of the Wind, over a year ago and that was a fun time in the kitchen. Here’s my original post if you want to read it. Today, I’m taking on The Angel’s Game, which is the sequel/prequel to Shadow, and I think I like it even more than the first book. Davíd Martín is the dark hero of this very baroque tale, still set in Barcelona but before World War II. Barcelona is as much a character in this series, and particularly so here.

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Davíd is an aspiring writer whose early years are marred by violence and tragedy. As he gets older, he becomes a newspaper writer then is approached to write a series of Grand Guignol, penny-dreadful type books with fantastical characters, magic, mayhem and murder but under a pseudonym. As time goes on, he is befriended by the Sempere family (you’ll meet them in the first book), falls in love with Cristina, the daughter of his best friend’s chauffeur, also befriends the lovely young Isabella who plays a pivotal role in his life, and is taken under the ominous wing of Andreas Corelli, an enigmatic publisher who is not who he seems and commissions David to write a book.

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Davíd’s work for Corelli, which consists of  creating a new religion, takes him down a very dark path. To concentrate on his work, Davíd moves into a dark, mysterious mansion that previously belonged to Diego Marlasca, a wealthy Barcelona businessman whose son died under strange circumstances. As David continues to write his religious saga, he also begins to learn about the horrible things that happened in the house and in the life of Diego Marlasca, and finds terrible connections between his own life and writing, the life of Marlasca and the publisher Corelli, who might just be the Devil in Disguise……..that superbly dressed, smooth talking agent of darkness who initially seems harmless but then you realize just how twisted and evil he truly is. That’s Corelli.

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I fell in love with David’s darkness, but I have a very dark side myself so I’m drawn to that in people. He loves passionately, feels deeply, writes intensely and embodies the darker side of the heart that we all have inside us. Davíd is darkly attractive to many, including young Isabella. In a series of amusing events, Isabella manages to install herself as his housekeeper/companion/writing partner………even as she falls in love with him and though he will not admit it because he loves Cristina, is as enamored in his own way with Isabella. Isabella is a hilariously funny character, a good foil for Davíd’s darkness, and I was always peeved at him for not ever allowing her a chance in his heart until it was too late.

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One evening, after they have had a terrible argument, Isabella storms out and is attacked by would-be rapists. David comes to her rescue, knifing the two men before then can do too much harm. As you’d imagine, Isabella is terrified and traumatized, and David takes care of her the way she’s cared for him, sending her to take a calming bath as he puts together a meal for her, leftover from the many delicious delicacies she has brought from her Italian father’s gourmet food shop.

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I wanted to hold her arm as we went up the stairs, but she avoided any contact. Once in the apartment I took her to the bathroom and turned on the light. “Have you any clean clothes you can put on?” Isabella showed me the bag she was carrying and nodded. “Come on, you can wash while I get something ready for dinner.” “How can you be hungry after what just happened?” “Well, I am……..”   I closed the bathroom door and waited until I heard the taps running, then returned to the kitchen and put some water to boil. There was a bit of rice left over, some bacon, and a few vegetables that Isabella had brought over the day before. I improvised a dish of leftovers and waited, downing almost half a bottle of wine in that time.

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Hey, I can improvise with bacon like no one’s business. So after looking to see what I had in the way of vegetables, I decided some super-simple bacon-wrapped Brussels sprouts would be a perfect improvised leftover dish.

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INGREDIENTS
24 Brussels sprouts
24 slices of bacon
Black pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F, and wash and trim the Brussels sprouts. Let dry.

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Flatten out each slice of bacon, and wrap each Brussels sprout in a slice of bacon.

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Put the bacon-encased sprouts on a foil-lined baking tray.

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Bake for 35 minutes, and remove from the oven.

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Sprinkle over some freshly ground black pepper, and spear each with a toothpick.

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Eat with a friend at a sun-drenched winery with grapes hanging over you, drinking wine and enjoying other goodies. It’s the next best thing to being in Barcelona.

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The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

One of the books I’d want to have with me if stranded on a desert island, this noir-style novel has everything you could want in an adventure story. The Shadow of the Wind is set in post-WWII Barcelona, and has tongue-in-cheek melodrama, mystery, forbidden love, a spooky mansion, hints of the supernatural, a strange, scarred stalker in black who haunts the steps of the main character and narrator Daniel, and best of all, a huge Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

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As much a love story about books as it is anything else – with lines such as “Few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart,” this book will sing to anyone who adores reading and escapes into literary worlds on a regular basis.

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The book’s premise is simple, but it blossoms like a gorgeous black flower into an epic tale. Daniel, who grows up as the book progresses, has lost his mother during the Spanish Civil War. His father, attempting to comfort him one morning, takes him to an old castle, inside which is a huge, twisting, high-ceilinged labyrinth of a library, along the vast, amazing lines of Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco.

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Here, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, watched over by the gargoyle-ish Isaac,  holds books that have been loved, lost, sometimes damaged, occasionally destroyed, but always housed to maintain their spirit. Daniel finds a book called The Shadow of the Wind by the elusive Julián Caráx, and falls in love with it. He begins to search for more books by the author, and instead, finds himself at the heart of a mystery that started 20 years before.

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Daniel is joined in unraveling the mystery of Julián by his unexpected friendship with Fermín Romero de Torres, a formerly homeless jester of a man who becomes Daniel’s best friend and co-conspirator, all while chatting up every woman in Barcelona and eating everything he can get his skinny hands on, along the way. He is hilarious, and the comic relief in what can be a very somber and dark, though enchantingly beautiful, tale.

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Fermín breathed deeply, with relief, and I knew I wasn’t the only one to be rejoicing at having left that place behind…………”Listen, Daniel. What would you say to some ham croquettes and a couple of glasses of sparkling wine here in the Xampañet, just to take away the bad taste left in our mouths?”

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I remember having croquetas de jamón – ham croquettes – when I lived in Spain. They were always delicious with a glass of wine after class, and were among my favorite of all the tapas that I got to eat while there. Of course, anything eaten in a bar with a glass of wine at hand is always good, particularly when you’re actually ditching class to enjoy said treats. I digress, but goodness, those ham croquettes, sometimes made with Manchego cheese, sometimes with caperberries on the side, were just so delicious! I’m salivating in memory as I type.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on what I remember of how croquetas were made when in Spain, and a few tricks from the great Martha Stewart herself (no ankle monitor jokes, please). I paired this with a roasted asparagus and red pepper salad, which made a delicious Sunday afternoon lunch. The croquettes are delicious, made with Manchego cheese and Serrano ham – quintessentially Spanish foods – and the entire meal brought back memories of the sunshine on a Barcelona afternoon.

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INGREDIENTS
3 medium potatoes, peeled
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter
2 egg yolks, room temperature
1/2 cup grated Manchego cheese
3/4 cup finely diced Serrano ham
2 whole eggs
2 tablespoons milk
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup flour
Minced fresh parsley and oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Cook the potatoes in boiling, salted water for up to 30 minutes. Drain and cool.

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Push through a ricer, then mash together with the cream, butter, egg yolks, and Manchego cheese. Season with salt and pepper, and let chill for up to two hours.

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Heat the olive oil in a cast iron skillet until smoking. Take the potato mixture from the fridge, and shape it into little croquettes, placing pieces of ham inside and folded over to enclose the ham.

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Repeat until you have several croquetas.

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Whisk together the two remaining eggs with the milk and some salt. Mix together in another bowl the flour, breadcrumbs, parsley and oregano.

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Dip the croquetas first into the milk, then roll in the breadcrumbs.

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Fry for about 3 minutes per side, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.

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Delicious! Beautiful! And quintessential comida Española!

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Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel García Márquez

5152QdYs-aLI’ve had a long-time passionate love for Gabriel García Márquez for years now, originally fueled by Love in the Time of Cholera and Of Love and Other Demons, and most especially, Strange Pilgrims. This book, a compilation of twelve surreal and dreamlike tales, tells of a woman who sells her dreams – speaking of which – to the wealthy citizens of Vienna, two young brothers who endure the torture of an English governess one Greek summer, a family vacationing overnight in a haunted castle in Italy who wake to find themselves covered in blood, and a saintly man who carries the uncorrupted body of his dead daughter to and from the Vatican each day hoping to have her canonized, among others. Chief among my favorite of these stories, is Maria Dos Prazeres. Perhaps because I fear dying old and alone, perhaps because I, too, spent many years in the thrall of loving someone terrible for me, and perhaps because I also have a little dog that I cherish, could I relate so strongly to this story of an aging prostitute who fears no one will weep at her funeral and so trains her little dog, Noi, to weep over her grave.

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Maria Dos Prazeres has a long-time client, an elderly count who comes to her house once a fortnight with a bottle of champagne and the paper, and sits to read while she prepares them both a meal, in a very odd parody of a marriage. They then retire to the bedroom. But the meal she cooks him sounded unusual and quite delicious.

“The visit had turned into a ritual. The punctual Count would arrive between seven and nine at night with a bottle of local champagne, wrapped in the afternoon paper to make it less noticeable, and a box of filled truffles. Maria dos Prazeres prepared cannelloni au gratin and a young chicken au jus – the favorite dishes from the halcyon days of fine old Catalonian families – and a bowl filled with fruits of the season.”

This recipe works on the premise that you already have some tomato sauce already made, and which I tend to always have on hand because it’s so calming to make. Anyway, if you don’t have some made, you can use a can of Italian-style diced tomatoes but I can’t promise they will taste as good. Anyway, onward!

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

8-10 cannelloni or manicotti pasta shells
6 chicken thighs, boneless and skinless, and poached and shredded. (I usually do this day before.)

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1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 shallots, finely diced
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 bag of spinach
1 carton of raw mushrooms, sliced
2 cups of fontina cheese
3 tablespoons of flour
3 tablespoons of butter
1 1/2 cup of hot milk
Bunch of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 cup of Italian-style breadcrumbs
2 cups of already-made tomato ragú sauce

METHOD

In a large pot, bring about 8-10 cups of salted water to a boil. When boiling, cook the cannelloni shells for 10 minutes, checking for doneness. They should be al dente, chewy but with a hint of firmness. Drain the noodles, but don’t rinse, and leave to cool while you make your cannelloni filling. Save about a cup of the starchy pasta cooking water and set aside.

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In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and add the diced shallots and garlic. Slice about half the mushrooms and add them in, so they saute as well. Cook for about 10-12 minutes, then add the spinach and wilt it down in the onion, garlic and mushrooms, so that all the flavors mingle. Remove from heat, add the cooked chicken and some of the saved pasta cooking water, stir together to mix well, and set aside to cool while you make the bechamel sauce.

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In yet another pot (did I mention you’ll have a hella big amount of dishes to wash after this?), melt the butter over medium heat and when melted, slowly add in the flour. Stir vigorously with a whisk, so that the flour incorporates. Gradually pour in the hot milk, continuing and whisk until everything is amalgamated. Lower the heat to medium low, and stir stir stir, until the sauce thickens. This will take about 10 minutes, and don’t leave it because the milk could curdle or burn and that would just totally suck, wouldn’t it?

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When nice and hot and thick, add in the chopped parsley and some salt, lower the heat again, and stir some more so the parsley flavor infuses everything. This is the point where you want to add in a good cupful of your tomato ragú sauce, which will make the bechamel a gorgeous, deep pinky-red color. Remove from the heat and allow to cool while you assemble the cannelloni shells.

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In a buttered glass or metal pan, add a good spoonful or two of your premade tomato ragú sauce to the bottom. Grate the Havarti cheese into the chicken-spinach-mushroom mixture and mix together well, preferably with your very clean hands.

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Stuff each cannelloni shell with some of the divine-smelling mixture. Once all the shells are filled, lay them in a row in the glass pan, add some chopped raw mushrooms, pour over the reddish-hued, luscious cream sauce, top with the Italian breadcrumbs, and bake for 35 minutes, or until the top is golden. The smell from the oven – what divine and sweet torture it is!

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Remove from the oven and admire the golden, gooey beauty that this dish is. Then, of course, apply it to your face. Yum!