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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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.