Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

I suppose this book would fall under the category “chick-lit” which I generally loathe. However, I read Bridget Jones’s Diary years ago and remember laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes, and the film version with Renee Zellwegger, was similarly hilarious and heart-felt. It’s still as funny today and I found myself snickering yet again as I reread it last week. I suppose many of us who were singletons in our mid-30s could definitely relate to many of the themes in this book – wanting to find a relationship, parental issues, being stuck between two different lovers, trying to find the right job – but for me, the underlying theme that stood out to me then and now was the concept of loving yourself and finding someone who was going to love you just as you were, warts and imperfections and cellulite and all.

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We live in a society that idolizes appearance. We all want to look our best. These two elements combined have created a sense that if we don’t look homogenized, have long straight hair, have the perfect relationship, or be a size 6, that we are not worthy, not valuable, not lovable, not NORMAL. I think why this book resonates is because it shows that when you do kill yourself to look/be “normal” or all those catchphrases that society tells us we must adhere to, oftentimes we end up looking worse, feeling worse, not being true to ourselves. When we accept our faults and our quirky unique weirdness is when we are our true selves and when we are able and open to loving ourselves.

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The book, in a nutshell, is the adventures of Bridget Jones, 30-something, still single, and her quest for the perfect job, perfect weight, and perfect man. What makes it so hilariously funny is that she is about as far from perfect as you can get – in other words, she is just like us. She is funny as fuck, totally relateable as she goes from one disaster to another, constantly trying to stop smoking, quit drinking, drop pounds, etc.

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The film version is excellent, too, and actually I prefer her mother in the movie. Bridget’s mom in the book is a horrendous human being. She isn’t even funny. In the film, Gemma Jones plays her with a ditzy sympathetic self-centeredness, but the book Mrs. Jones is just a selfish, self-centered nightmare who really doesn’t seem to care about anyone other than herself. She was quite an unpleasant character. Other than that, the book was most amusing.

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So of course Bridget is a walking disaster in the kitchen, which lends itself to possibly the funniest scene in the book, when she decides to cook herself and her friends a lovely birthday dinner. Of course, being Bridget Jones, it gets completely fucked up, and made even more hilarious by the fact that Mark Darcy shows up at her house as she is attempting her culinary masterpiece.

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7 p.m. Just got home. Right. Calm, calm. Inner poise. Soup will be absolutely fine. Will simply cook and purée vegetables as instructed and then – to give concentration of flavor – rinse blue jelly off chicken carcasses and boil them up with cream in the soup.

8:30 p.m. All going marvelously. Guests are all in living room. Mark Darcy is being v. nice and brought champagne and a box of Belgian chocolates. Have not done main course yet apart from fondant potatoes but sure will be v. quick. Anyway, soup is first.

8:35 p.m. Oh my God. Just took lid off casserole to remove carcasses. Soup is bright blue.
….
Horror-struck, took mouthful myself. It was, as he said marmalade. Realize after all effort and expense have served my guests:
Blue soup
Omelette
Marmalade

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Now, making an actual blue soup would be totally fun but I can’t imagine it would taste very good. So I decided to go another route and incorporate blue cheese into a spinach soup, and it was a most inspired decision, if I do say so myself.

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INGREDIENTS
5 ounces fresh baby spinach, preferably organic
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2-3 cloves of garlic
1 cup half and half (or full-fat milk)
2 cups chicken stock
3/4 cup white wine
1-2 tablespoons chicken bouillon paste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup blue cheese crumbles

METHOD
Chop up the spinach finely and set aside.

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Heat the olive oil in a skillet and add the flour to brown it, stirring constantly so it doesn’t burn.

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Add the milk and keep whisking until the mixture thickens. You don’t want lumps so stirring continually is a good thing, and better yet, if you do it with a glass of wine in hand, you’ll feel confident and competent in the kitchen, just like Bridget Jones!

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Add the spinach, garlic cloves and salt and pepper, and stir.

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Add in the chicken broth, the chicken bouillon paste and the white wine, cover, and let simmer about 25-30 minutes.

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Tumble in the blue cheese crumbles and let melt into the hot soup.

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Decant into bowls and serve with more wine, in true Bridget Jones fashion. So good, rich and warming and decadent. Yum!

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Coraline by Neil Gaiman

I didn’t actually read this book when I was a kid, but since it’s ostensibly a kid’s book that weirded me out having read it as an adult, I think it fits snugly into my own Halloween canon this year. Coraline is just plain creepy. It hits a nerve for any kid, me included, who grew up wishing they had different parents. Well, that’s all of us, isn’t it?

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Coraline is a typical kid. She has quite an imagination and loves to wander off and find adventures. In fact, it’s her search for adventure in her new house that leads her to find the other side. Coraline is essentially ignored by her parents, which as an adult is somewhat understandable. As a kid, to simply want your parents to pay attention to you, to be “normal,” is an essential part of every kid’s experience growing up. Some parents are better than others. Coraline’s are not. They aren’t mean or abusive, nor do they neglect her in a bad way. They are simply wrapped up in their own lives, their own careers, their own interests and they seem to have forgotten that they have a kid who needs some feedback and attention.

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So when Coraline goes exploring and discovers the other house and the Other Mother and Other Father, who welcome her with such happiness and joy and wonderful home cooking and her own bedroom filled with magical toys and the promise that she can stay with them forever if she wants to, it’s no wonder she is tempted.

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What the underlying theme in this film is is bravery. Coraline is a brave kid, taking on a terrifying task of finding the souls of the three children whom the Other Mother has already taken, and possibly losing her own in the process.  The Other Mother is truly frightening. She has black button eyes and seems to know the deepest parts of Coraline’s mind and soul, anticipating Coraline’s moves when Coraline tries to find and release the souls of the other children trapped there. But it’s tempting for Coraline as well, because the Other Mother promises something Coraline doesn’t get from her parents – normalcy and attention. The fact that the Other Mother also does what any dream mother would do – cook a kid’s absolute favorite foods – is another mark in her favor since in her regular world, her real father cooks all this horrible gourmet food when he should realize that Coraline only wants microwaved food, like any regular kid. 🙂

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Coraline’s father stopped working and made them all dinner. Coraline was disgusted. “Daddy,” she said, “you’ve made a recipe again.” “It’s leek and potato stew, with a tarragon garnish and melted Gruyere cheese,” he admitted. Coraline sighed. Then she went to the freezer and got out some microwave chips and a microwave pizza.”

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Well, I don’t know about Coraline but to me, potato and leek soup with Gruyere and tarragon sound absolutely delicious, and perfect to make as the late summer weather changes to cool autumn temperatures. So that’s what I made. (Obligatory shot of my dog included, just because she’s cute.)

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons butter
3 leeks, well cleaned and trimmed
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 leeks, trimmed and well washed
1 carton chicken broth
1/2 bottle white wine
1 tablespoon fresh chopped tarragon
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon Better than Bouillon
3 tablespoons grated Gruyere cheese

METHOD
Melt the butter in a large pan. Slice the leeks into rounds and add to the butter. Let saute for about 5 minutes.

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Finely mince the garlic and the tarragon and add both to the leeks in the pan. Let them cook together for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a dash or two of sea salt.

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Cube the peeled potatoes and add to the leeks, tarragon, and garlic. Stir around to cover with the butter.

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Add the dried thyme, pour over the chicken broth and the white wine, cover and let simmer for 45 minutes, until the potatoes have completely softened.

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Bust out the fabulous stick blender and blend until everything is smooth and velvety and unctuous.

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Add in the grated Gruyere cheese and stir to mix and melt. Let simmer a few more minutes, tasting for seasoning.

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Decant into soup bowls and garnish with some more fresh tarragon. The licorice hint from the tarragon is a perfect contrast to the starchy potatoes and rich cheese. So delicious! I think it might even convince Coraline to try it!

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The Dead House by Billy O’Callaghan

What I found fascinating about The Dead House is the fact that it’s narrated in first person by a character who is not the focus of the story, but whose own story is as much a part of the overall arc as the main character. Mike is an art dealer and his best friend is Maggie, an artist whom he represents. She’s been recently from the hospital after having been savagely assaulted by her ex-boyfriend. She finds an old cottage in the Irish countryside, starts fixing it up in anticipation of painting something new, and invites Mike, his future wife Alison, and another friend and they spend the weekend exploring, drinking, cooking, laughing, and on the last night, playing with an Ouija board. Because what else would anyone want to do in a seaside cottage on the isolated Irish coast in a country that boasts its fair share of ghosts, spirits, pagan gods and other creepy things? And of course, we all know that when we are dumb enough to play with the supernatural, it almost always plays back with us.

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Maggie becomes even more isolated at the cottage as whatever spirit that was summoned by the Ouija board starts spending more and more time in her company. Ack! Mike, whose relationship with Alison is developing and which is described in lovely and realistic detail of a true love match (but in a way that’s not mushy or sappy, thank God), and when he goes to visit Maggie yet again and sees how her world is deteriorating, all else goes to Hell. Literally and figuratively.

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The aspect of the story I found difficult was the fact that Maggie, although the de facto focus of the story, is never truly given a personality or background. We know she’s an artist, we know she’s drawn to men who don’t treat her well, we know she’s somewhat of a lost soul, we know she’s a creative type with an odd connection to the stranger things in life, but we never really understand why she is the way she is. Mike talks about Maggie from almost an emotional remove, perhaps it’s because what happens to Maggie ultimately ends up affecting his own life……….but enough spoilers.

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Overall, I loved this unique ghost story, heavy with the menacing sense that Ireland’s history is still with us today and is as scary and haunting as it was hundreds of years ago when blood sacrifices to their pagan gods were the order of the day. Also, O’Callaghan writes so beautifully about the nature in Ireland – the rocks, the glint of sunshine on the ocean, the various trees and flowers and plants that make the countryside into such a picture-perfect place.

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Before the sh*t hits the fan with the Ouija board, the four friends spend one evening making a communal meal of spaghetti Bolognese, or spag bol, as it is called in the United Kingdom. I thought a nice potful of Bolognese sauce was in order, so that’s what I made,  based on the late, great Antonio Carluccio, who insists there be no herbs whatsoever. And yes, I know it’s weird to make an Italian classic from a book set in Ireland. Don’t write in.

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INGREDIENTS
6 chicken livers
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
6 baby carrots, finely chopped
2-3 celery ribs, finely chopped
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 head of roasted garlic
3 ounces ground beef
3 ounces ground pork
1 cup pancetta, finely chopped
4 generous tablespoons good-quality tomato paste
1 glass dry red wine
1 cup chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Firstly, soak the chicken livers in milk overnight in the refrigerator. Please trust me here. They add such a depth of savory flavor that is so delicious and when cooked and mashed in the sauce, thicken it deliciously.

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Rinse the chicken livers, pat dry and fry in butter for about 5 minutes per side. Let cool.

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Melt the oil and butter together in a large pot, and add in the chopped carrot, celery and onion. Saute for about 5 minutes, then squeeze in the roasted cloves of garlic. The smell is out of this world good!

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Add the ground pork, ground beef, and pancetta, and stir together so that the juices from the meats mingle with the flavor of the vegetables. Let cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally so things don’t stick. You want to cook it until it’s almost dry, as this adds to the texture.

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Pour in the tomato paste, and stir around. The color is like a deep brick red, very different than the color you get from cooking with crushed tomatoes.

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Pour in the red wine and the chicken stock, and stir to mix. You will still have a thick texture, but the wine and stock thin it and add to the flavor.

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After 10 minutes, add in the chicken livers, and using a wooden spoon, mash them against the side of the pot to thicken the sauce.

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Turn the heat to low, stir again, cover and let simmer gently for up to 2 hours, checking on it occasionally. Add in more wine or stock if necessary.

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Serve with spaghetti for a true British spag bol, tagliatelli which is much more traditional in Italy, or if you’re not eating carbs like me, eat with a pile of zucchini noodles, which are excellent! The sauce itself is so good, complex and thick and rich, yet with a hint of sweetness. Delicious!

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The Face by Dean Koontz

I’ve been reading Dean Koontz’s books since I was in 7th grade and came across one in the school library at St. Michael’s Catholic School, and devoured it in three hours. I was hooked from then on, though his books are definitely hit-or-miss. His style has evolved  over the years, from the straightforward horror of serial murderers,  scientifically modified creatures escaped from laboratories, and crazed voodoo killers, to more metaphysical meanderings over the years. He has written about life after death, surviving plane crashes, reincarnations………with his unique style of description. He knows how to create characters that stay with you.

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The Face is my own personal favorite, because it seamlessly melds the metaphysical with the supernatural with the harsh reality of modern-day Los Angeles. The main character, Ethan Truman, is a retired police officer who now is head of security for a world-famous actor. His childhood best friend Duncan Wheeler has recently died – or has he? – and it is this “death” and some very creepy and strange letters addressed to his movie-star employer from an unknown stalker, that propel him into this mystery.

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There is, of course, the serial stalker/killer Corky Laputa who provides the intense antagonist viewpoint, and the child character, Aelfric, who provides Ethan with someone to protect and is at the heart of one of the book’s most throat-grabbing mysteries. It’s a seriously good read, but also made me think about quite a lot of stuff.

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The metaphysical meanderings on life, death, good, evil, Heaven and Hell, are what I particularly enjoyed, because these are questions we all ask ourselves. Does good always win over evil? Is there life after death? What truly awaits us after we die? Are we so certain we’ll end up in Heaven or Hell, or whatever constitutes our personal visions of these places?

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In one scene, Ethan meets up with his former police partner, Hazard Yancy, and one of my favorite characters. Yancy is still on the LAPD, a detective with a huge appetite and heart of gold. Ethan buys him lunch at a local Armenian restaurant, and Yancy essentially orders the entire menu. Ethan has just had an intense scare involving a potential suspect in the stalking case, and he is questioning his entire grip on his sanity, and reality. His order of Moroccan salmon and couscous goes uneaten, though it sounded quite delicious.

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Two waitresses were required to bring all the food to the table. Hazard grinned and nodded as each dish was placed before him: “Nice. Nice. That’s nice. Real nice. Oh, very nice.” The memory of being shot in the gut spoiled Ethan’s appetite. As he picked at his Moroccan salmon and couscous, he delayed bringing up the issue of Rolf Reynerd.

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So this was my latest recipe – salmon with a Moroccan-style sauce called chermoula and lemony couscous studded with fresh vegetables – inspired both by this wonderful book and a great desire for some clean eating after the excesses of Thanksgiving Day.

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INGREDIENTS
For the salmon and chermoula sauce:
4 salmon fillets, deboned and deskinned
6 cloves of garlic, divided
2 tablespoons cumin
Pinch of saffron threads, soaked in a bit of white wine or chicken stock
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 green onions, sliced
Bunch of fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon fresh mint
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon dried red chili flakes

For the couscous:
1 cup couscous
2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup grape tomatoes, cut in half

METHOD
In a small food chopper, add the garlic cloves, cumin, green onions, saffron, mint, cilantro, olive oil, lemon juice, some salt, and chili flakes. Pulse until well mixed.

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Brush the top of the salmon fillets with the chermoula sauce and let sit for up to 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

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Heat a stovetop grill pan to medium high, and grill the salmon fillets about 3-4 minutes per side. Let cool while you make the couscous.

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Boil the chicken stock with the remaining tablespoons of lemon juice, and pour it over the couscous.  Add the peas and tomatoes, stir briefly, cover with plastic wrap and let the liquid absorb, about 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork.

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Serve the salmon atop a bed of couscous, and garnish with the remaining chermoula sauce. Apply to your face.

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Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes

I was lucky enough to have inherited my dad’s version of this marvelous treasure of a book, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, and which has notes in his handwriting, making it even more precious. My undergraduate degree was in Spanish, and as part of my graduation requirements, I had to read Part II in its original language, not an easy task, I can tell you. But it gave me such an appreciation for the sly humor and satire that characterizes this book.

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I’m sure everyone knows the classic story of The Man of La Mancha, the wanna-be knight who has rotted his brain by reading too many books on medieval romance, and one day decides to go out into the world as a Knight, righting wrongs, serving justice where needed, and of course, acting as a courtly gentleman toward all ladies. He knights himself with an old armored helmet and an elderly horse named Roxinante, finds a servant in his neighbor Sancho Panza, and off into the world they go to have adventures both touching, sad, and hilarious.

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Gustave Doré’s famous woodcut of Don Quixote de la Mancha, and one of my absolute favorite prints in the world.

The book is divided into two sections, the first part being the tale of adventures Don Quixote has, including the iconic scene where he fights the windmills, is knighted at the inn, and constantly defends his lady Dulcinea del Toboso, who is, in reality, a slatternly servant. (That’s a great word, slatternly, isn’t it?)

In Part II, Cervantes uses the literary device known as meta-fiction, meaning the characters are self-aware and realize they are literary creations. It’s a fun thing to read, and fascinating on many levels, the idea of literary characters who know they are book characters.

 

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In Chapter XX of the the second part of the book, we find them attending the wedding of Camacho The Rich, who is marrying Quiteria The Fair. Quiteria has renounced Basilio The Poor to marry the wealthy Camacho, and Basilio is heart-broken. Sancho and Quixote argue the virtues of marrying for love vs. marrying for money, with Sancho feeling Basilio has no right to marry anyone if he has no money. Quixote, being the romantic that he is, is irritated at Sancho’s argument and hushes him rudely before they actually arrive at the sumptuous wedding feast, which is true medieval excess in every way. There are cheeses galore, gallons of wine, pigs waiting to be roasted, bread and stews, plucked chickens waiting to be cooked, and a myriad of other foods, which symbolize Camacho’s wealth and the ostentation of the wealthy class.

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Sancho did as his master bade him, and putting the saddle on Roxinante and the pack-saddle on Dapple, they both mounted and at a leisurely pace entered the arcade. The first thing that presented itself to Sancho’s eyes was a whole ox spitted on a whole elm tree…….six stewpots that stood round the blaze had not been made in the ordinary mould of common pots, for they were six half wine-jars………….Countless were the hares ready skinned and the plucked fowls that hung on the trees for burial in the pots, numberless the wildfowl and game of various sorts suspended from the branches that the air might keep them cool. Sancho counted more than sixty wine skins of over six gallons each, and all filled, as it proved afterwards, with generous wines.

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As much as I would love to someday be able to recreate an entire medieval feast of this magnitude, today I settled for a riff on the plucked fowls featured as part of Camacho’s wedding feast. Because let’s face it, chicken stuffed with chorizo and Spanish cheese can make everything in the world better!

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This is the method that worked for me, based on several previous attempts to make stuffed chicken, and also with a nod toward Nigella Lawson’s chicken with chorizo and cannellini beans, a huge favorite of mine.

INGREDIENTS
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, pounded somewhat flat
One 1-ounce tube of beef chorizo, preferably cured Spanish but use what you have on hand
1 cup Manchego cheese, grated

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3 cups of spinach
1 tablespoon Spanish smoked paprika

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F.

Squeeze the chorizo out of its casing into a non-stick pan, and cook over medium heat until the beautiful, terra-cotta colored oils start to ooze out of them. Probably about 10 minutes should do it.

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Add the spinach to the chorizo in the pan, add a dash of red wine to give more liquid to the veg, and season with garlic powder. Stir frequently until the spinach wilts, about 10 minutes again. Remove from heat.

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Flatten out your chicken thighs using a rolling pin. Just cover them with plastic wrap and whack the hell out of each thigh for a few seconds. Excellent stress relief, which I think many of us need right now.

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Lay a spoonful of the chorizo mixture in the center of each rolled-out chicken thigh.

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Sprinkle over a handful of grated Manchego. Then roll up each thigh and spear with toothpicks to hold the shape.

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Place in an lightly oiled baking pan. Pour a little bit of chicken broth and a little bit of red wine into the bottom of the pan, to keep the chicken moist and prevent burning and sticking to the pan bottom.

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Sprinkle Spanish paprika on top of each chicken roll. Admire the gorgeous, deep red ochre of the spice on the chicken.

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Bake for half an hour. You’ll start seeing the cheese oozing and melting out of the chicken. This is a good thing. Trust me. After 30 minutes, remove from the oven and allow to cool. Sprinkle over a bit of sea salt. Don’t forget to remove the toothpicks from the chicken. Trust me on this.

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Serve as is, with whatever side or starch you like. I had some leftover tomato basil fettucine and some egg noodles, so I cooked them together, then made a simple lemon-cream sauce for the pasta. Yum!

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Wash it down with a nice Spanish red. Because it wouldn’t be truly an homage to our favorite knight errant and his sidekick if we didn’t toast them with the wine of Spain.

Si hay este mundo vino, y no bebió vino, a que chingado vino.