Food in Films – Coco

El Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead in English – is a Mexican holiday that celebrates the spirits of our beloved dead. It is far more complex than that, but who among us can’t relate to having lost a loved one, missing them, and wanting to honor their spirits? I know I do. Having lost both my parents, most of my beloved grandparents including my Nana Jean who raised me and who I loved more than any human on this earth, my first love just a few months back, as well as my sweet pug baby Sparky, I can well understand and relate to the themes in the film Coco.

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Death is part of life. That is an unarguable fact. How death itself is seen, however, and how it is conceptualized, is as varied as the cultures across the world. The concept of El Dia de los Muertos as we understand it currently comes predominantly from Mexico, and has its roots in ancient sun worship by the Aztecs as well as Catholic rituals brought from Spain by the conquistadores, as evidenced by the fact that El Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on All Saints and All Souls Days on the Catholic calendar. Obviously, this is a very simplified version of the meaning of the day, but I could write 50 blog posts about the meaning of death and the cultural concept and constructs of El Dia de los Muertos, and that isn’t happening. Anyway, the overall idea is to honor the dead by celebrating them with food, drink, music, and parties, since death is considered only another part of life and on this day, the dead come back to celebrate with us.

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Coco embodies this concept so beautifully. I am a bit embarrassed to admit that me, a grown woman, had a major ugly cry at the end of this film, so closely did it hit me in the heart, both when Mama Coco remembers and engages with the world again, and when her spirit is reunited with her father. I loved my grandmother, Nana Jean, so very much and losing her was like losing a limb. I think when you lose someone you love so much that a part of your heart dies along with them. In this case, she was my rock, my security, my mother in every possible way, my source of advice, my teacher, my mentor. So the idea of a grandmother, locked in her own senility and her own memories of loss, and the wonderful journey of Miguel, the main character, who wants to become a musician very badly, really hit home. He is forbidden to pursue his music due to his great-great grandfather (a musician as well) having supposedly abandoned his family when young and turning the family against music.

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Miguel lives with his shoemaker family, including his elderly great-grandmother Mama Coco, who has lost most of her memory and sits in a wheelchair. On El Dia de los Muertos, the family makes an altar with photos of their beloved dead relatives, marigold wreaths, food and drink that the dead loved, candles, and many other items. (This is actually my permanent altar that I keep year-round so it gives you an idea of what they can look like.)

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Miguel accidentally takes a photo of his great-great grandmother and tears it, seeing a torn-off part of the photo that leads him into his next great adventure. He needs a guitar for a music competition so he heads over to the enormous crypt of Ernesto de la Cruz, Mexico’s most famous musician, and whom Miguel believes to be his long-lost dead great-great grandfather, where he takes Ernesto’s iconic guitar and subsequently enters the Land of the Dead. Being that it is right around El Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, November 1, the dead are allowed to visit for the day and see the altars and ofrendas their families make for them. He meets up with Hector, another long-dead musician who offers to show him around the Land of the Dead, and they get into many hilarious scrapes and funny adventures. Of course, if you have any kind of brain at all, you figure out pretty quickly that Hector is really Miguel’s great-great grandfather.

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The most touching part of the film is when Miguel returns from the Land of the Dead with the song that Mama Coco learned from her father and is the only thing she really still remembers. She and Miguel sing it and her memory returns. It is so incredibly beautiful. The entire film is visually stunning, in addition to tugging at your heartstrings, and I particularly loved how respectful of the Mexican culture it really is. In this time of such ugliness and hatred toward those of Mexican background and ethnicity, the joy and beauty and love demonstrated in this film gives me hope.

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Pan de los muertos – bread of the dead – is a dense, orange-flavored cake made each year and set on altars in honor of the dead, who are believed to come back just that one day to visit their families, enjoy offerings made in their honor, and enjoy food and drink of the living for one night. Traditionally it is made in the shape of a skull and crossbones, though I’ve seen in made in the shape of coffins, graveyards, crosses and skeletons, and I think nowadays you could make your pan de los muertos in any shape you desire. I made mine in a skull-shaped cake pan and used it as part of my altar I have every year with photos of my Nana, my parents, and others I have loved and lost.

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INGREDIENTS
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup full-fat milk, room temperature
1/2 cup lukewarm water
5 cups all-purpose flour
2 packages active dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons anise extract (you can use anise seeds but I hate them because they get stuck in my teeth)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons orange extract
1/2 cup sugar
Zest of 3 clementines
4 eggs, room temperature

For the orange glaze:
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups grated clementine zest
1/2 cup orange juice

METHOD
Over medium heat, warm the butter, milk and water until the butter melts. Don’t let it burn.

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In the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid mixer, combine 1/2 cup of the flour, the yeast, the salt, and the sugar.

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Slowly beat in the warm milk, the orange, vanilla and anise extracts, and orange zest until well mixed.

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Add eggs, one at a time, mixing through.

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Slowly add in another 1 cup of flour, and continue adding flour until you have a soft, but not sticky dough, then turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead for at least 10 minutes or until smooth and elastic. Add a bit of warm water if the dough seems dry. Form the dough into a ball.

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Wrap in plastic, cover with a tea towel, and leave to rise in a warm area until it doubles in size, probably around 2 hours.

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Preheat the oven to 350F, unwrap the dough and push it into your skull pan, pressing so that it fills in all the nooks and crannies. Bake for 30 minutes and remove from oven to cool.

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In another saucepan over medium heat, combine the rest of the sugar, the orange zest and the orange juice until it just boils and the sugar dissolves. Whisk to stir but don’t leave because the sugar burns easily. Remove from heat so it thickens.

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Turn the bread out onto a platter that shows off the skull shape, and brush the orange glaze all over it so it’s glossy and shiny. Decorate with marigolds if you so desire.

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Lay on your altar and eat a slice while remembering those you love who have passed on, knowing that they, too, will be enjoying the sweet bread while they are here visiting.

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Food in Books Has Reached 1,200 Followers!

Just a short note to say that I was just notified my little ol’ blog Food in Books, at: www.foodinbooks.com, just hit 1,200 followers! I couldn’t be more thrilled and surprised!

It’s because of the support from all of you that this has happened, and I am so grateful for your support, for your encouragement, for your feedback, and for always having something positive and beneficial to say about my blog. I am so very grateful!

As a thank you, I am having a book giveaway. It’s open to anyone. To enter, just comment at the bottom of this post telling either what book or what food – or both! – you’d have with you on a desert island and why, and if you’re not a follower, please follow my blog! The winner will be randomly chosen the week of November 9, and will receive a copy of the marvelous cookbook Adriatico by the wonderful food writer Paola Bacchia, whose Instagram feed is a thing of beauty and joy. Just don’t look at it when you’re hungry.  Please follow her if you’re on Instagram. She shares some of the most gorgeous Italian recipes, interspered with travel photos, and wonderful images of her Mamma, who was born in Italy. She’s amazing, and I know you’ll think so, too.

Thank you again from the bottom of my heart. xoxo

Vanessa

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 Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs

I thought it would be fun to blog about books I loved as a kid that also scared the crap out of me. I clean out books on a fairly regular basis because I buy so many of them, and I donate many to Little Free Libraries around my city. So while cleaning out my books the other day, I came across a stack of children’s and young adult books I’d kept for years and had some pleasant nostalgia when I saw The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs. It features the character Johnny Dixon, a young boy who lives with his grandparents in Duston Heights, Massachusetts, in the 1950s. He’s a bookworm, kind of nerdy, loves to read and loves radio drama, and loves chocolate. Well, we can all relate to that!

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Johnny is befriended by Professor Roderick Childermass, who is a hilarious character. He reenacts famous sea battles with plastic ships in his bathroom, is a professor of history who is extremely opinionated, plays chess like a wizard, and makes a mean chocolate cake. Naturally, he and Johnny become pals, which is fortunate because when Johnny discovers a mysterious book and a blue figurine in the cellar of his church that once belonged to the evil priest Father Remigius Baart, the curse comes back to haunt Johnny. A blue ushabti figurine – ushabti are small figures found in ancient Egyptian tombs with mummies usually representing servants expected to do certain agricultural labors required of the deceased in the land of the dead – contains the actual curse and when Johnny takes both the book and the figurine, all hell breaks loose.

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An example of ushabti figurines.

My edition also features the unique artwork of Edward Gorey, who I absolutely adore! Anyway, this book was a wonderful nostalgic trip down memory lane for me, taking me back to the days when I would sneak books under the covers and read by flashlight after my mom and stepdad had gone to bed and I was supposed to be asleep. I think I always particularly loved the friendship between Johnny and Professor Childermass, because I always was in search of an adult who would treat me as a peer and not a a kid, and these two definitely bond as friends over chess and chocolate. This is one of my favorite passages:

Johnny excused himself and went across the street. He had a great time that evening. The professor was a crafty and merciless chess player. He was every bit as good as Johnny was, and maybe even a bit better. As for the cake….well, Johnny had theories about chocolate cake. He felt that the cake part of the cake was just an interruption between the layers of frosting. As it turned out, the professor’s opinions about cake were similar to Johnny’s. The cake he served had three or four thin layers and the rest was a huge amount of good, dark, thick, fudgy frosting. And he served second helpings, too.

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In honor my sister’s birthday, I tried my hand at a four-tier, old-fashioned chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, with focus on the ganache frosting. I decorated it for Halloween, in honor of this high holy season of horror!

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INGREDIENTS FOR THE GANACHE FROSTING
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups dark chocolate chips, 70% cocoa solids
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon Amaretto

METHOD
Make your cake tiers with whatever chocolate cake recipe you have to hand. Make sure they are completely cool before frosting them.

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In a metal saucepan, heat the heavy cream until small bubbles just start to form around the sides and you see steam rising. Don’t overheat the cream or it will curdle. Turn off the heat immediately.

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Pour in the chocolate chips and make sure they are covered by the hot cream. Add the almond extract, the vanilla extract and the Amaretto. Cover and let sit for 15 minutes.

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Remove the lid, and whisk the mixture for 5 minutes. You’ll see the chocolate ganache start to amalgamate as you continue to stir, thickening into a luscious frosting.

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One layer at a time, frost the top of each cake layer and stack them on a cake stand, until you have this magnificent layer cake. Proceed to frost the cake top and sides.

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Decorate however you want. I tried to find little blue mummies but could not, so I just went full on Halloween instead. The result? Cute, kitschy, and ultimately delicious!

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Just look at those fudgy layers! Johnny Dixon would be proud!

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Rio Grande Fall by Rudolfo Anaya

If you’ve been following my blog since it started, you’ll know of my deep and abiding love for the literary works of Rudolfo Anaya. A native of my home state of New Mexico, he was one of the first writers to gain national and worldwide attention for his books set here in the Land of Enchantment. His writings embody the experience of growing up Hispanic in New Mexico, growing up in a small town with not very much money, growing up in a world that is rapidly changing from agricultural to industrial, growing up in a world that straddles both the corporeal and the spiritual.

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Rio Grande Fall walks this line between the material world and that of the spirits that surround us here in our beautiful, dysfunctional but always magical state of New Mexico. The second in a series of four books by Anaya titled on the seasons of the year and all following the story of Elfego “Sonny” Baca, a private investigator with quite the track record of cracking cases and hooking up with women, this book continues the story from the first book Zia Summer, in which Sonny is tracking a cult leader and murderer called Raven, who is what we call a brujo here – a witch working dark magic.

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The charm of these books is that they exemplify life in New Mexico as told from the point of view of a native resident, not a transplant, and that’s why I can relate so much to the books of Anaya. He doesn’t promote the same tired literary tropes about the Southwest that so many non-native writers do. I love our Native American culture but my God, it’s been done to death in books and TV and movies. I like the focus on the other people who make up the beautiful and varied tapestry that is the people of our state – this Hispanics who are descended from Spanish soldiers and indigenous women of Mexico whose whose unique history, genetics, religion and culture have made us the hard-working, fun-loving, resilient, difficult and amazing raza we are today.

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Sonny Baca lives in the North Valley in Albuquerque, in the shadow of massive cottonwood trees, in proximity to his beloved elderly neighbor Don Eliseo and Don Eliseo’s friends Don Toto and Doña Concha. For those of you not familiar with New Mexico culture, the title of “Don” or “Doña” is honorary, given to an elder whose knowledge, influence and connections made he or she a powerful member of the community. Similar to how Vito Corleone was referred to as “Don Corleone” in the Godfather books and movies, so here you have that same concept.

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Don Eliseo is a powerful influence in Sonny’s life, representing the light side of his soul as Raven represents the dark, negative energy that is also part of Sonny’s makeup. And Sonny’s connection with his elderly neighbors also emphasizes the respect, love and honor the majority of New Mexico Hispanics hold for their senior citizens. They are the ones with our history, our story, and our souls and when they are gone, a major piece of our cultural identity goes with them.

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This scene is classic New Mexico in the autumn, when people are roasting green chile outside, drinking beer or wine, and essentially turning it into a party.

Don Eliseo and his two friends were busy in the front yard when Sonny drove up. He and Doña Concha and Don Toto were roasting a basketful of green chile that Don Eliseo grew in his field by the house. Don Eliseo slowly and methodically placed the shapely green peppers on the grill, turned each one with care, and when the thin skin was brown and roasted, he picked up the chile and tossed it in a pan. Don Toto’s job was to make sure the just-roasted chiles were kept covered with a wet towel and steaming, thus making the skin easier to peel off. He also kept the wineglasses full of his own vintage, a North Valley wine that came from vines his family had cultivated since the seventeenth century.

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Fall is chile season here in New Mexico, and the smell of it roasting at farmers markets, growers markets and grocery stores is an integral part of the changing of the season. In fact, October is also when the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta takes place, so oftentimes you’ll be out walking or opening your door to greet the morning, and be hit with a gorgeous scent of roasting green chile while watching hot-air balloons float serenely overhead against a backdrop of the stunningly blue New Mexico sky……..and you will know that autumn has arrived. Green chile is marvelously versatile, and I thought I’d make a classic fall dish of chicken pot pie and add that spicy twist of roasted green chile and other traditional fall vegetables, in homage to Sonny Baca and Don Eliseo, who would surely approve.

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INGREDIENTS
Two good-quality, store-bought pie crusts (you can make your own but why give yourself more work?)
5 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter
1 green zucchini, cubed
1 red bell pepper, deseeded and cubed
1 can corn, drained and rinsed
2 generous tablespoons dried garlic powder
5 New Mexico green chile peppers, preferably Big Jim
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup full-fat milk
1/2 cup chicken broth
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 425F, and poach the chicken thighs in water or store-bought chicken broth, then cool and shred. Set aside.

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In a large skillet, heat the oil and butter, sprinkle over the garlic powder, and saute the squash and bell pepper about 10 minutes.

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Add the corn and stir until warm, then pour into the bowl with the shredded chicken and mix well. Set aside and save the oil in the skillet.

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If you have a gas stove, turn on the two front hobs and lay two chiles on top of each. The idea is to roast and blister them on each side, turning frequently until the entire chile is blackened and roasted. Use tongs so you don’t burn your fingers. NOTE: this is a very old-school method of roasting green chile. Most people do it in the oven under the broiler, on an outdoor grill, or in a toaster oven, but I like to live dangerously and do it the way my grandfather taught me – stovetop!

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Turn the chiles as you roast them, so that each side gets blackened and that spicy smell wafts out at you. Put into a large plastic bag, seal it and cover with a tea towel. The idea here is that the skins will steam off. Leave for up to 20 minutes.

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Remove the chile from the plastic bag, slide off the skins, then cut off the stems and remove as many seeds as possible.

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Chop up the roasted chile, season with salt and garlic powder, and mix with the chicken and vegetables. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.

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Heat some butter in the same skillet you used for the vegetables, and when melted, add the flour and stir until it melts into the butter and browns a bit. Gradually add the milk and keep whisking, to form a roux. Simmer over medium heat until it thickens.

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Lay out one of the pie crusts and add in the chicken-vegetable-chile mixture, then pour over the hot roux.

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Cover with the other pie crust, crimping the edges to sea, and cutting some slits in the top for steam to escape.

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Bake for 30 minutes, until the pie crust gets golden brown and you can smell all those wonderful savory scents. Allow to cool 10-15 minutes before cutting into it and enjoying your slice of New Mexico heaven on a plate!

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The Godfather by Mario Puzo

I’m a bore on the topic of books vs. films, as I’ve been told many times, and I’d have to agree. Don’t get me started on whether the film version is better than the book, because I will wax poetic for a good hour or two about the merits of the book and how the book is ALWAYS better than the film. However, I must come clean and shamefacedly admit that I have never in my life read Mario Puzo’s masterpiece The Godfather. Until now, that is.

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I’ve seen the film, of course. Like 30 times. Possibly more. I own the trilogy, for God’s sake. I can quote the movie nearly line-by-line (another reason not to watch movies with me because I will irritate the shit out of you by doing that) and I will gladly debate the merits of that much-maligned film The Godfather III, because I personally think it has many hidden gems within it. Just try to ignore Sofia Coppola’s performance and give her a break…..she was young and there are worse actresses in the world.

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Unless you live under a rock, you know the storyline. The Corleone family patriarch, Vito, runs a crime syndicate in 1950s New York. He has three sons, Santino (Sonny), Frederico (Fredo), and Michael, and a daughter, Constanza (Connie.) All are very different, and Sonny is expected to take over the family business, but when he is executed Mafia-style and when Vito Corleone has an attempt made on his life, Michael takes over, becomes the Don and is far more cold and ruthless than his father ever could be.

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I was surprised at how removed the narration of the book was, though. It’s told from the third-person, but even from that remove, it is a very cold and clinically written book of a passionate family. The dichotomy was odd, though it worked extremely well because when you read the scenes of violence, murder, etc., the emotional remove makes them much more powerful. I was also surprised at how Michael’s Sicilian wife, Apolonia, was portrayed. In the film, she has very much a personality, flirtatious and passionate and quite funny, actually. In the book, she really isn’t given much character at all, beyond being this gorgeous, sexual creature that Michael falls passionately in love with and must possess, until she is, of course, killed in the car explosion meant for him.’

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In terms of food, I had initially planned to recreate the scene where Clemenza teaches Michael to make  homemade ragú sauce when Michael is in hiding before killing Sollozzo and McCluskey, frying the garlic, etc. It’s a classic food scene and I love nothing more than making tomato sauces because it’s so relaxing. But I then I read the scene where a pregnant Connie cooks a meal of veal with peppers for her dickwad husband Carlo, and when he tells her to fuck off, she loses her temper, smashes the dishes on the table, and he proceeds to beat the living hell out of her.

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“I’m not hungry yet,” he said, still reading the racing form. “It’s on the table,” Connie said stubbornly. “Stick it up your ass,” Carlo said. He drank off the rest of the whiskey in the water glass, tilted the bottle to fill it again. He paid no more attention to her. Connie went into the kitchen, picked up the plates filled with food and smashed them……..the loud crashes brought Carlo in from the bedroom. He looked at the greasy veal and peppers splattered all over the kitchen walls and his finicky neatness was outraged. “You filthy guinea spoiled brat……clean that up right now or I’ll kick the shit out of you.” And he does, using a belt and his fists.

Pretty awful, both in the book and the film clip above, but it did start me thinking about veal. I had never made veal saltimbocca and this seemed like an excellent way to honor the Corleone family. This method comes from the legendary Anna del Conte’s book Gastronomy of Italy, which in my opinion, is like the Bible of contemporary Italian cooking. Her method does involve making the veal into little rolls, or involtini, so my friend Luca Marchiori says these should be called vitello involtino.

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INGREDIENTS
10 thin veal veal cutlets
10 slices prosciutto
10 fresh sage leaves
1/2 cup flour, for dusting the veal
Salt and pepper to taste
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup white wine

METHOD
Lay out the veal cutlets on a flat surface.

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Place a strip of prosciutto and one sage leave atop each piece of meat.

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Roll up each veal cutlet and secure  with a toothpick to hold its shape.

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Mix salt and pepper into the flour, and dredge each veal roll in the seasoned flour.

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In a heavy skillet, heat the olive oil and melt the butter in it, and when hot and bubbly, add in five of the veal rolls, browning on each side. I estimate it was roughly 5 minute per side. Don’t crowd the frying pan because they won’t brown and your lovely $25.00 veal cutlets will have gone to waste. I’m too cheap to want that.

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Let cool and fry the other five rolls.

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Remove the last rolls from the still-hot pan, and pour in the white wine, whisking and letting it bubble until it thickens into a lovely, syrupy reduction sauce, about 10 minutes. Pour over the veal rolls. The smell is amazing!

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Et voila! Veal saltimbocca, or as my friend Luca Marchiori suggested, vitelli involtini since they are rolled. Whatever. They are absolutely, mouth-wateringly delicious!

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Serve with some lovely, buttery polenta and roasted red bell peppers….hence, veal and peppers! Just don’t throw the food across the room a la Connie Corleone.

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Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

I went into this book expecting a nice, escapist type of read as I recovered from minor outpatient surgery this past weekend. It was recommended by two friends of mine as a book filled with art and food and set in France, and both of them were sure I’d love it. I minored in Art History and of course, I am a foodie par excellence and love travel, so I gave it a whirl. When you’re recuperating from any medical procedure, minor or major, you don’t really want anything too heavy or deep.

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(sigh) That being said, Lisette’s List was boring. I’m sorry, I hate to slam on books and writers because God knows, I am not an author. The author of this book, Susan Vreeland, had previously written a wonderful novel called Girl in Hyacinth Blue, which told the story of a Dutch painting and its owners starting in modern times and going back through when it was painted, in a series of interconnected short tales. It was beautifully written and moved along brilliantly. This book? Not so much.

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The basic premise is a young woman, Lisette, who moves with her husband Andre, to a small town in Provence to help care for Andre’s ailing grandfather Pascal in the late 1930s. Pascal, before he dies, gradually teaches Lisette about painting and colors and life. Sounds nice, right? It’s not. Dull. Andre goes off to fight the Nazis and of course, dies. Before he went off to fight, he hid away some family paintings worth millions. The rest of book is the tale of Lisette moving away from Provence, following her “list” that she had put together with Pascal of all the things she wanted to do with her life, including finding those family paintings before the Nazis get their nasty little hands on them.

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The book had a lot of promise, and the basic premise could have been done so much better. And of course, the lavish descriptions of rural French country towns, the art itself and the luscious food so typical of Provence and southern France were really the redeeming parts of the book. But the main character, Lisette, doesn’t ever really develop much as a character and in fact, makes some decisions which are downright annoyingly stupid. I mean, if you’re savvy enough to go off on your own throughout southern France in search of valuable family paintings, you’re surely smart enough to figure out who is your enemy. Anyhoo…..

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Like I said, the food descriptions were wonderful and in some cases, mouth-watering. There were any number of food passages I could have reenacted, but this particular dish sounded both intriguing and perfect for the current late summer bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes that are on jewel-like, glowing display at every grower’s market. I was lucky enough to have purchased a large bag of organic heirlooms last week and decided to put them to delicious use.

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Soon, Odette’s daughter, Sandrine, whose brother Michel, would come home someday, and Madame Pinatel, the mayor’s wife, came to pay their respects. Then Melanie brought two jars of canned cherries from their trees and a bag of raisins. Aloys Biron, the butcher, brought a large salami. Most unexpectedly, Madame Bonnelly, a stout woman with thick arms whom I had never met, brought a gratin d’aubergines, an eggplant-and-tomato pie garnished with breadcrumbs.

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I have a love-hate relationship with eggplant, but the idea of a tomato pie sounded luscious, so I did a little culinary research and came up with this method which is a combination of Elise Bauer’s recipe from Simply Recipes and a long-remembered recipe from Southern Living I read about a few years ago.

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INGREDIENTS:
1 and 1/4 cups unbleached flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
4 tablespoons ice-cold water
1 pound heirloom tomatoes, preferably fresh and organic
4 cloves garlic
1 shallot
1 cup of mixed shredded cheeses. I used sharp cheddar, pepperjack and Gruyere
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

METHOD:
For the piecrust:

Combine the flour with a teaspoon of salt, and gradually mix in the butter one small cube at a time. Add the water a bit at a time until the dough comes together in your Kitchen Aid and forms a ball. Wrap in plastic and freeze overnight.

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For the filling:

Slice the tomatoes, lie them out on some parchment paper, and sprinkle over salt and garlic powder. Leave to drain overnight.

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Mix together all the cheeses except for the Parmesan, then mince the garlic and add it to the cheese mixture.

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Add in the mayonnaise and the Greek yogurt and stir to mix well.

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Finely mince the  shallot.

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Heat the oven to 350F and roll out your cold piecrust to roughly 12 inches diameter, then press into a pie pan.

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Blind-bake the crust for 15 minutes, remove and prick the bottom of the crust a few times, and bake another 10 minutes. Sprinkle the shallots into the bottom.

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Spoon over the cheese-mayo-yogurt mixture and spread across so that it cover the pie base and shallot-garlic mix.

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Lay the tomatoes in overlapping circles over the cheese mixture, and sprinkle the Parmesan over the top.

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Bake for 30 minutes, or until the Parm is nicely golden brown. Apply to your face.

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The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett

I admit to having been a Grail fan since I read Le Morte d’Arthur many years ago. The romance of the Arthurian legend combined with the mysticism of the Cup of Christ is the ultimate story, isn’t it? King Arthur courting Guinevere, Sir Lancelot falling in love with Guinevere and his relationship with Elaine, Arthur’s incestuous liaison with Morgan le Fay and the birth of their son Mordred, Sir Galahad going off in search of the Grail itself……..this is the stuff of fairy tales combined with some arguable historical figures so of course it’s compelling reading!

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When I read The Mists of Avalon, it was eye-opening because it presented the tale from a completely different perspective that embodied female power and juxtaposed Christianity taking over the pagan religions of ancient Britain in a fascinating way. In addition to Monty Python, though, the film that always fascinated me with regard to the Grail was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.which remains a favorite to this day, particularly the scene toward the end when Indy finds the knight in the chamber surrounded by cups and chalices and glasses and vessels. That scene perfectly embodied the mysterious and ethereal nature of the Grail……..especially when it is pointed out that the cup of Christ would not be made of gold. Well, duh, but I had never thought about it that way before, having been entrenched in the rituals of the Catholic church and the typical Communion wine goblet.

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This book, The Lost Book of the Grail, adds a nice twist to the traditional tropes of Grail lore. The protagonist, Arthur Prescott, is endearingly old fashioned and nerdy, teaching at the University of Barchester Cathedral, a nice little meta-nod to the fictional town of Barchester as satirically created by the late Anthony Trollope. He loves books and hates the modern world, having been raised on the mythology of King Arthur and the Grail. His own grandfather has planted the seed that the Holy Grail itself may be hidden somewhere in Barchester and that colors his perception of his own life there.

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A young lady named Bethany comes to Barchester, intent on digitizing the ancient books in the Barchester Cathedral library and as much as Arthur is drawn to her, he shies away from her modern outlook on books and literature. But she is also an amateur Grail sleuth, and before long, they are on the trail of the legendary Cup of Christ and the origins of the ancient St. Ewolda, whose story interweaves with the Grail in a really wonderful and unusual way. And of course, one  thing Arthur loves is walking with the female Dean of the Cathedral, Gwyn Bowen, and her two dogs, each morning and debating various issues tying in with life, literature and often, food.  Gwyn needles him about his dislike for a colleague, whom Arthur has just compared to a cheese.

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“I thought we were talking about the Gorgonzola, said Arthur with disdain. “Don’t you care for Gorgonzola, Mr. Prescott?” said the dean, and they spent the rest of their walk debating the relative merits of English, French and Italian cheeses.

So of course, I had to make something with Gorgonzola, which in my opinion, is the King, the Queen and the Empress of all the cheeses in the world. A dish of farfalle pasta enhanced with Gorgonzola, butternut squash and pancetta sounded mouth-watering, so that’s what I made.

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INGREDIENTS:
1 lb farfalle pasta
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, diced
1 shallot, diced
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 cups butternut squash, peeled and diced
1 cup pasta water
1 cup Gorgonzola crumbles
salt and pepper to taste

METHOD:
Boil the pasta in salted water until al dente, drain and reserve a cupful of the pasta water. Set both aside. (NOTE: this is a stock photo of farfalle pasta as I forgot to get a shot of the drained, cooked pasta.)

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In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat, and sauté the garlic, shallot, and sliced-up pancetta until the veggies are soft and pancetta is crispy, roughly 10-12 minutes.

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Add the butternut squash, season with salt and pepper, and sauté another 10 minutes. You want the squash softened but not mushy.

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Pour in the white wine and stir together. Let simmer for about 5 minutes.

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Add in the drained pasta and pour over some of the pasta cooking water. Stir again and warm over low heat.

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Sprinkle the cheese over the pasta and squash mixture, pasta and stir until just combined, then taste for seasoning. The Gorgonzola is marvelously sharp and salty, so you likely will not need any additional salt, and the pasta water makes the sauce lovely and creamy.

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This is a rich and delicious pasta dish, one that you don’t want to have on a regular basis but rather, once in a blue moon when you want to indulge and enjoy something unique and rare……rather like the Grail itself!

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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

I don’t know about you, but I have an incredibly developed sense of smell. Annoyingly so at times, because I can pick out the scent of body odor from 50 feet away. My sister always tells me I have the “nose from hell” and there are times when it feels like hell to be able to smell so intensely. However, the flip side is that I can also smell wonderful, heavenly scents from miles off, like someone brewing fresh coffee, the scent of someone baking a few streets away, the difference in wine bouquets (and if the wine has turned and become oxidized) and many other smells that make up daily life.

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If you think about scent, it’s perhaps the most immediate and visceral when it comes to memory association. I smell certain scents, certain perfumes or colognes, and I am immediately transported to certain places in my past. Smell can be considered a type of defense mechanism when it comes to food because if we can’t visually determine if something is “off,” one good whiff of it can keep us from food poisoning. So can you imagine either not having any sense of smell, or in this case, having the most intense sense of smell ever?

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Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is the anti-hero of this book, born in a fishmonger’s market in Paris in the mid 1700s. (Can you get more French than that?) He is ordinary in every way other than the fact that he has no scent to him whatsoever but he has an abnormally developed sense of smell, so intense in fact that he is able to discern the individual scents of people as well as objects. He becomes a perfumer, working for various powerful people as he develops his own obsession in creating the ultimate scent.

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The kicker? He must kill the people who emit the scents that he finds so enticing and irresistible. Of course, they mainly tend to be young virgins because their scent is so pure to him that he must have it. So begins his career as a murderer in tandem with creating perfumes to sell to the public. His scent obsession is creepily psychosexual as he deeply inhales every single part of the women he kills, including their genitalia.

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Grenouille is so talented at creating scents that he is able to create the scent of anonymity, so that he is able to navigate the world around him, picking out the scents of virginal young women and murdering them to keep their scent, without being noticed. He is eventually so inconspicuous that people who normally wouldn’t give away their own breath have no problem giving him everything he needs or wants.

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Once they caught a whiff of him, the market women filled his pockets with nuts and dried pears because he seemed to them so hungry and helpless. And the butcher’s wife, an implacably callous old hag if there ever was one, let him pick……

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Of course, Grenouille gets his come-uppance in the end, after he’s arrested and purposely emits a scent he’s created that not only makes everyone adore him and have a major orgy in the streets outside his prison cell, but in the end, he is literally consumed by his scent. I won’t go into detail but it’s pretty intense and fairly visceral. This pear and walnut tart should provide a nice offset to his ultimate end.

INGREDIENTS
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
1 cup toasted walnuts, divided
Pinch of sea salt
7 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
1 and 1/4 cups flour plus two tablespoons
2 eggs, one separated out by yolk and white
2 tablespoons softened butter
1/4 cup brandy or orange liqueur
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 medium sized Bosc pears

METHOD
Mix half the sugar, half the toasted walnuts and salt in a food chopper and process until you have a flour-like texture.

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In the bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid and using the pastry hook attachment, add the flour, the sugar-walnut mixture, and mix together, gradually adding in one butter cube at a time until a rubbly dough forms.

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Add in the yolks and mix again, scraping the sides as needed, until a ball of dough forms. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate until you’re ready to use it.

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Heat the oven to 400F and press the dough into each mini tart pan. Mine are non-stick with removable bottoms, which makes life so much easier.

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Line each tart crust with foil and add some lentils or beans or baking weights to each and blind-bake for 15 minutes, then let cool. (NOTE: Don’t forget to line with foil like I did, dummy that I am. I spent 15 minutes picking lentils out of the blind-baked crust. Yes, I’m a moron at times.)

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Mix together the other half of the walnuts and sugar in the food chopper, until you have a coarse texture, then add in the butter, egg, flour, and salt and mix again until smooth.

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Slice the pears lengthwise and put in a large bowl with the sugar, brandy and lemon juice for about 15-20 minutes, until the pears start to release their juice. Drain.

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Spread the walnut filling into each tart pan.

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Arrange sliced pears over the walnut filling in each pan so they overlap. As I’ve said before, I am the world’s worst cake decorator and we can include tarts in that category. But hey, at least you know mine are homemade, right?

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Put a small sprig of rosemary on each tart, arrange the tarts on a baking sheet and bake until golden, around 30 minutes.

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Once completely cool, push each tart out of the pan from the bottom and serve. The smell of toasted nuts and baked pears spiked with rosemary is out of this world, and likely would invoke the murderous instincts of Grenouille.

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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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