The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spoon in the cooked ham and chorizo.

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

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Toss a spoonful of peas over each egg yolk.

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

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

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

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The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Repeat until you have several croquetas.

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

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

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

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Delicious! Beautiful! And quintessential comida Española!

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The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon

Thanks to Dr. H for the photography.

Lord John Grey was a major character in the Outlander series, being the warden of  Ardsmuir Prison in Scotland, where Jamie Fraser was imprisoned after Culloden. Lord John, being the fascinating character that he is, got his own spinoff series – of which today’s book is the latest – in which he serves in the British military, interacts with his equally interesting family, travels round the world on adventures both fun and heart-stopping, occasionally travels to the Lake District of England to check on his paroled prisoner Jamie, and has affairs with men.

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Yes, Lord John is a homosexual, and one of the most fascinating aspects of this series is understanding how homosexuals acted and survived within their repressive British society of the mid 1700s. Having friends and family members who are gay and knowing the difficulties they have dealt with, I can’t imagine how much more challenging it would have been to be born that way in a world and society that deemed them perverts and sinners. Well, our society still does that, at least some people do, so perhaps we haven’t come as far as we like to think.

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Lord John is quite an endearing character. He is intelligent, erudite, brave, loyal, and has a very dry wit and sense of humor. In The Scottish Prisoner, he is investigating a case of treason within the British army and is asked to bring his paroled Scots prisoner, one James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, to London to help in the investigation. The treason is related to the supposedly-dead Jacobite cause, and as Jamie was a known, and well-connected Jacobite during the Rising, his connections are believed to possibly be helpful. Then, they head to Ireland to further investigate, and that’s where the adventure really starts.

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Told from both the voices of Jamie and Lord John, what I loved about this book is seeing the same situations from their very different vantage points. They are both oddly similar, though. Both are men of the military, both are extremely intelligent, loyal to the death, and even though Lord John is gay and secretly in love – and lust – with Jamie, which initially disgusts Jamie due to his own horrific rape and torture many years before at the hands of another British army captain, Jack Randall (not to mention the fact that he is not homosexual), in this book they are ultimately able to come to a mutual respect and cautious friendship.

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Being 18th century London, the book also abounds with the excess of rich food that was typical of that era and place. Lord John dines at his private club one evening with friends, where they drink, gamble, and eat with aplomb a large feast, including something fascinating, called salmagundi. Don’t you just love that word?

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Grey, with some experiences of von Namtzen’s capacities, rather thought the Hanoverian was likely to engulf the entire meal single-handedly and then require a quick snack before retiring………..in the social muddle that ensued, all four found themselves going in to supper together, with a salmagundi and a few bottles of good Burgundy hastily ordered to augment the meal.

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According to Wikipedia, salmagundi is a salad dish, originating in England in the early 17th century, made up of cooked meats and seafood, vegetables, fruit, leaves, nuts and even flowers, dressed with oil, vinegar and spices. The meaning of the word is thought to come from the French “salmagondis” which is a mix of widely disparate things. Which mine certainly is, and a great way to use up veg, fruit, and meat left over in the refrigerator! This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
6 chicken legs, skin on
6 small potatoes, mixed red, purple and white
6 sprigs thyme
1 head of garlic
6 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons halved walnuts
2 cups green beans, trimmed
1 cup roasted red peppers, thinly sliced
4 cornichons or tiny dill pickles
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 hard-boiled eggs
1 tablespoon finely chopped sage
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 cup raw shrimp
3 radishes, thinly sliced
1 green apple, cored and thinly sliced
1 beefsteak tomato, quartered
1 bunch green grapes

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F.

Place chicken and potatoes in a roasting pan, and drizzle over olive oil and fresh thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Slice the head off the garlic, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper, and put into a garlic roaster.

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Roast both for 45 minutes, until chicken is golden and crispy, the potatoes are soft, and the garlic is roasted. You’ll know by the scent.

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Melt a teaspoon butter in a large nonstick pan. Add the walnuts and green beans, and some lemon juice. Cook for about 15 minutes, until the beans are softened but still have a bit of crunch. Season with salt and pepper, and transfer to a plate to cool.

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Melt another teaspoon of butter, and add the chopped sage and shallot. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook until the shrimp is pink, about 3 minutes. Set aside to cool.

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Whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Slice the radishes, cornichons and tomatoes. Arrange on a large platter. Core and slice the apple and also arrange it on the platter.2017-04-09 19.05.29_resized

Arrange the green beans, the shrimp, chicken, and potatoes topped with the wholeroasted garlic cloves. Squeeze over the rest of the lemon juice, then arrange the grapes. Drizzle any remaining vinaigrette over the vegetables and serve immediately.

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On top of tasting wonderful, it’s also very aesthetically pleasing. The mishmash of colors, textures, tastes and smells is quintessentially 18th century, and I do feel Lord John might approve of this dish.