The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I can’t say enough about Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s writing. It’s absolutely beautiful, lyrical, lush without being overly purple, and whether describing the sensory overload of a roomful of books, the scent of tobacco, the deeply scarlet hue of a woman’s lipstick, or the existential dread and horror of torture and death, the man writes like a magician. I’ve read each of the books in the series over 10 times apiece, and I continue to find small, overlooked details in each one the more I read. The Labyrinth of the Spirits, the fourth and final book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, draws together the threads splayed out in the previous three books, brings a kind of justice to the Sempere family, and introduces the reader to a very unusual heroine, Alicia Gris.

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The basic premise of this book is the story of Alicia, born in Barcelona, how she loses her parents during the Civil War in Spain, her chameleonlike evolution from petty street criminal to police officer/spy and her connection to Barcelona, Daniel Sempere, David Martín, and Fermín Romero de Torres (in my opinion, one of the funniest and most touching sidekick characters in modern literature and an obvious nod to Sancho Panza); and her connection to the marvelous and terrifying Cemetery of Forgotten Books. If you’ve read the three previous books, The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, and The Prisoner of Heaven – all of which I have previously blogged – you will know the overarching storyline. How Alicia fits into this dark Wonderland tale that pays homage to books, literature, freedom, love and mystery, is both beautiful and sad.

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I will say that my only beef with this book is how most of the women are portrayed, as either femmes fatales or saints, which is something I run across in most books where a male writer writes from a female POV. Alicia is a fascinating character. Yes, she is beautiful and somewhat damaged both physically and emotionally and she does have very complex emotions, but she isn’t a homewrecker and the reactions of other female characters to her is somewhat irritating after awhile. No, she isn’t there to steal your man, ok? She’s investigating a disappearance and looking into her own childhood history. Sheesh. I suppose it annoys me because I see so much of this in real life – this Madonna/whore outlook even from other women when they see a physically beautiful woman and automatically assume she is trouble or that she is a man-eater or a slut or all those other awful words that both men and women use to shame females for daring to look a certain way.

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As dark and painful as this book is at times, it is above else, a love letter to reading. The sheer joy of losing yourself in a book is something that every lover of literature can relate to, including me. Alicia has loved books since she was a little girl, and when she is rescued early on in the book from a bombing in Barcelona by our erstwhile Fermín and accidentally falls through the glass roof of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, it completely changes her life, both physically and emotionally. Can you imagine getting lost in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books? Between the ghosts and mysterious figures that supposedly haunt its corridors, the sheer amount of books to be devoured and the romantic terror implicit in such a place, it sounds like somewhere I could happily spend eternity. With lots of good wine and Spanish tapas, of course.

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Alicia is paired with a detective named Vargas, with whom she has a strong attraction and shares a unique sense of humor. He’s a bit older than her, which is fine with me since I have always preferred older men. They have been tasked with finding Spain’s Minister of Culture, Mauricio Valls, who has mysteriously vanished and with whom the enigmatic David Martin – of The Angel’s Game – has been connected. Valls was responsible for imprisoning and torturing many people during Spain’s Civil War, including Martín, and it’s feared he has been kidnapped in retaliation. The reality, of course, is much more complex and far, far worse. Anyway, once back in Barcelona, Alicia introduces Vargas to many of her favorite haunts from her childhood and adult years living there. The Ribera quarter is home to her favorite tapas bar, appropriately called La Bombeta. There, she orders a plateful of bombas, bread with olive oil and tomatoes, and beer – a quintessential Barcelona treat.

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“Bring us four bombs and two beers,” Alicia instructed, without taking her eyes off Vargas. “Estrella or draft beer?” “Estrella.” “Bread with oil and tomato?” “A couple of slices. Toasted.” The waiter nodded and walked off without more ado………..the beers and the plate of bombas arrived just in time to interrupt the conversation. Vargas eyed that curious invention, a sort of large ball of breaded potato filled with spicy meat.

Bombas are potato balls stuffed with meat and shallow-fried, eaten hot with a cold beverage. They can be stuffed with ground beef, ground pork, chorizo, etc. I ate many of them when I was a student living in Spain, and though they are made in various iterations in different cities, the bomba is a true child of that beautiful, unique and haunting city of Barcelona. This is my take on them.

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INGREDIENTS
6 waxy potatoes
1 yellow onion, finely diced
4 cloves of garlic, finely diced
1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika – also known as pimenton
1 pound uncooked chorizo
1/2 cup Spanish sherry
Salt and pepper to taste
1 egg
1 cup flour
1 cup breadcrumbs
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Cook the potatoes in boiling, salted water for 20-30 minutes until soft. Push through a potato ricer and stir to mix and break down. Add salt and pepper to taste and set aside to cool.

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Heat some olive oil in a pan and cook the onion and garlic for 10 minutes, until softened. Remove from the pan but leave the oil.

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Add the chorizo and stir, breaking it into smaller pieces, cooking it until it firms up, about 10 minutes.20200120_125638

Add the cooked onion and garlic to the meat, and sprinkle over the smoked paprika. Cook for another 10 minutes.

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Toss in the sherry and cook until the liquid evaporates, then let the meat cool and get on with your potato bombs.

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Form a large ball with the potato and put some of the chorizo-onion mixture in the middle. Close the potato over the meat so it is completely contained. Repeat until you have 6-7 bombas. Lay on a platter and chill for up to 2 hours, if not longer.

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Pour the flour and the breadcrumbs into separate bowls, and crack the egg into another bowl, mixing with a fork and some water and salt.

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Quickly dip the bomba into the egg, then the flour, then the breadcrumbs so it is completely covered, then heat about 3 cups of olive oil in a large pan and toss a small drop of water to test the heat. When the oil sizzles, it’s ready.

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In batches of 3, cook the bombas for about five minutes, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and eat hot, garnished with roasted red peppers, and with a toast to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the Sempere family, and the genius that is Carlos Ruiz Zafón. ¡Salud!

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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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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.