The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen

I didn’t actually intend to blog this book, not that it wasn’t enjoyable but because I had actually forgotten I had it on my bookshelves. As fortune would have it, I found some late-summer squash blossoms at my nearby grower’s market yesterday morning, along with many other garden goodies. Anyway, back to the book. Set in Italy, obviously, The Tuscan Child is a pretty good read about a young woman named Joanna whose father Hugo has died and left her what’s left of his property and fortune in England. Arranging his funeral, she naturally has to go through letters and paperwork and discovers among his things a love letter from a woman named Sofia. Sofia, it turns out, rescued Hugo during WWII, when his fighter plane was shot down over her Tuscan village of San Salvatore, and of course, they fall in love. But of course, true love never runs smoothly, particularly during a world war when the country you’ve been trapped in is invaded by disgusting Nazis.

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The book is told from two viewpoints and in two points in history. Joanna and her journey from England to Italy to learn more about Sofia and the Tuscan child she mentions in her letter, wanting to find out if this woman and her father had a baby together. Hugo’s story details his plane crash, how he and Sofia fall in love, and the occupation of Italy during WWII, which was fascinating to me. I never realized that Italy actually turned on Germany and surrendered to the Allied Forces, but the fact that the Nazi army was still actually physically in Italy made it much more difficult to fight them, since the Nazis were particularly nasty after their one-time partners turned against them.

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Hugo is part of the Allied effort to fully get the Nazis out of Italy when his plane is shot down. He hides in an old, abandoned church and is found by Sofia, who has struggles of her own in the village. Her husband is gone, feared dead and later in the book, she is accused of collaborating with the Nazis. And poor Joanna is kind of an annoying character, initially whiny and passive and self-pitying. It’s not until she goes to Italy to find Hugo and Sofia’s “Tuscan child” that she starts taking initiative, seeing the bigger picture, and essentially growing up.  She stays in San Salvatore with a wonderful woman named Paola, her daughter Angelina, and Angelina’s newborn daughter. Probably the best parts of this book were the cooking passages. Of course, being in Tuscany, there has to be food and food galore is part of this book. Paola cooks homemade pasta, brodo with tomatoes and stale bread, artichokes, asparagus, and the thing that made me get this book out and reread it for today’s post – the stuffed squash blossoms.

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“Let’s get on with the meal, Mamma. I am hungry and I am sure Signorina Joanna is, too.” “Then lay the table and slice the bread,” Paola said, going ahead of us into the cool kitchen. “And put out the salami and the cheese and wash those radishes.” She turned to me. “Now pay attention if you want to see how we stuff the zucchini blossoms.” She put some of the white cheese into a bowl, chopped up and added some of the herb I had now decided was mint, then grated some lemon zest on it. Then she took a spoon and carefully stuffed this mixture into each of the blossoms.

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I’d had them when I visited Italy a few years ago and they were divine, lightly coated with a lemony batter and stuffed with creamy, herbed cheese so I decided that, having found these beautiful yellow flowers, I was going to make them. So I did.

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INGREDIENTS
12 squash blossoms
3/4 cup of flour
1 teaspoon sea salt and ground black pepper
1/2 cup of San Pellegrino sparkling limonata or any lemon seltzer
1/2 cup Ricotta cheese
Lemon zest to taste
Fresh mint
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a cast-iron skillet until shimmering.

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Finely chop the mint. I got to bust out the mezzaluna for this so I was happy.

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Mix the mint with the Ricotta cheese and zest the lemon into this mixture. Taste for seasoning and add salt or pepper as needed.

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Gently open the squash blossoms and stuff each cavity with the lemony, minty cheese mixture. The smell is awesome, with the cool mint offset by the sharp lemon.

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Don’t overfill them or they won’t close. Seal them by twisting together the head petals. Set aside.

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Prepare the batter by adding the salt and pepper to the flour, mixing together, and slowly pouring in the limonata. Stir to mix until you have a relatively thick batter for coating the flowers.

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Dip each stuffed blossom into the batter, shake off the excess, and fry for about 2 minutes per side, until golden brown.

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Let drain on paper towels and devour!

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And if you have any batter left, throw in some shaved Parmesan and make cheesy fritters. They were an excellent accompaniment to these gorgeous squash blossoms.

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The Dead House by Billy O’Callaghan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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