Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly

I think I’ve mentioned my lack of enthusiasm for most non-fiction books before. However, I discovered Sharon Bennett Connolly’s amazing blog, History, The Interesting Bits, a few years ago, and her subsequent book, Heroines of the Medieval World, so hooked me into her writing that I immediately ordered the book and was sucked into the medieval universe of little-known historical women who accomplished some pretty amazing things.

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Bennett Connolly has that knack of turning everyday, ordinary, day-to-day lives into something greater and larger than all of us. What I particularly love about this book is that it tells stories of women who actually existed, had kids, raised families, married (often multiple times), maintained homes, and who made a name for themselves within a world that essentially viewed them as property. There are, of course, the very well known medieval heroines such as Joan of Arc, Heloise d’Argenteuil (she of Abelard and Heloise romantic fame), Hildegarde of Bingen, and a dear and personal friend of mine from Catholic school, St. Julian of Norwich who wrote Revelations of Divine Love and was the first Catholic mystic I ever read……..though not the last.

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There weren’t any specific food mentions in this book, but being that it’s about women and their traditional role in a culture and society, of course cooking and food preparation was likely the most essential task in their lives, after giving birth, of course. And it gave me some leeway in choosing what I wanted to make. Bennett Connolly’s heroines lived in medieval England, France, Italy, Spain, Wales and Germany, so you have a marvelous variety of food right there to choose from AND the marvelous variety of female heroines. And my favorite heroine in this book has to be the little-known Venetian writer Christine de Pisan. One of the very first women who was actually paid for her writing – imagine that! – she was born in Venice, Italy in 1364.

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Her father was a court astrologer and physician for the Venetian court until he accepted a position with the French court and the family moved there in 1368. So though native to Italy, she was very French in her outlook, political views, and most especially in her writing. Her husband died in 1389, leaving her with three children. In order to support them, she turned to writing and produced her most well-known work, The Book of the City of Ladies, an image of which is shown below.

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As Bennett Connolly describes:
The book tells of the lives of past and present heroines, including pagan, Hebrew, and Christian ladies who were renowned for being examples of exemplary womankind, famed for their chastity, loyalty and devotion. It included the lives of female saints who remained steadfast in their devotion to God in the face of martyrdom. City of Ladies was Christine’s response to the misogynistic portrait of womankind that was present in many works of the era, in which women were blamed for the misery in which men found themselves.

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That doesn’t sound at ALL familiar now, does it?

Anyway, I found this marvelous website dedicated to medieval recipes from various countries in Europe – www.medievalcuisine.com – and found one from Italy that sounded delicious. So in honor of Christine de Pisan and all the women of medieval times, I present cheese and pinenut fritters – fritelle da Imperadore Magnifici – which would have been commonly eaten as a sweet dish in the Roman and Venetian regions in the time of de Pisan’s life. I tweaked to make it more savory and added my own flavoring twists as I always do.

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INGREDIENTS
1/2 cup Ricotta cheese
1/2 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
4 sage leaves, finely minced
2 garlic cloves, peeled
2 egg whites
2 generous handfuls of pine nuts
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons flour
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan until they brown and give off that nutty scent. Set aside.

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Mix the cheeses together, and grate in the garlic.

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Gently whisk the egg whites before adding to the cheese mixture.

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Add in the toasted pine nuts and the finely minced sage, and then add in the flour and the salt, stirring everything together.

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Heat the olive oil until shimmering, and one spoonful at a time, scoop the cheesy batter into the oil. Fry until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes per side, and drain on paper towels. Eat while still hot.

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These are quite delicious, not overly salty and very rich, so you’ll probably only want one or two. And though the flavorings are my own, the basic method is essentially medieval, and are authentically Italian. Just like Christine de Pisan!

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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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Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

I was going to avoid any type of love story for Valentine’s Day this year, but I decided that was rather cynical of me, since expressing love for someone is one of the best and bravest things anyone can do in this world. That being said, I loathe and despise mush. I love genuine gestures of caring, friendship and love that are spontaneous and come from the heart, and that oftentimes, are completely unplanned, but sappy gush? Hell no.

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A kiss on the hand, a light stroking of hair, an unexpected embrace, even a quick smack on the ass while I’m cooking – these gestures of affection are so treasured by me when they are given. But sappy, slobbery words of love, declarations of undying love, promises of never-ending romance………meh. I suppose that stems from watching my father – married five times and engaged to two different women at the time of his death – doing the romantic number to all his wives and girlfriends on Valentine’s Day. We’re talking roses, jewelry, cards, the works, and yet, he was never faithful to any of them. I suppose that has made me somewhat cautious of the grand romantic gesture.

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Regardless, Love in the Time of Cholera has become one of my absolute favorite love stories in the world. It’s romantic, yes, but it is also unconventional, sexually explicit, funny, dark, painful, and beautiful. The love story at its heart spans 50 years, goes from youthful obsession to accepting love, from being young to growing old and still maintaining that deep, abiding love for another. Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall in love when in their teens, but her father refuses to allow her to marry him. She instead marries Dr. Juvenal Urbino, older, wealthier, and somewhat of a local hero. Florentino maintains his love and adoration of Fermina for 50 years, going through affair after affair after affair, numerous sexual exploits, varying relationships – 622, to be exact – yet in his heart and soul, he is faithful to his Fermina because he only loves her. When Dr. Urbino dies in the first chapter, after their 50+ years of marriage, Fermina sees Florentino at the funeral where he declares his perpetual love for her, and sets out to woo her again. Thus begins the story.

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Florentino’s love for Fermina is compared to the cholera – feverish, never-ending, destructive, devastating. Those of us who have had the fortune and misfortune to have a love so encompassing, enveloping and overwhelming can agree – love is passionate, maddening, destructive, and ultimately, redeeming.

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The other reason why I love this book so much is because the daily, grinding reality of marriage is so well described. Dr. Urbino doesn’t truly love Fermina, though he is a good husband in many ways. But the daily rituals of cooking, eating, lovemaking, washing clothes, going to work, knowing the other person so well, understanding their love of cafe con leche, their hatred of a certain song, their taste in jewelry, the way they get dressed or comb their hair…………it is in these elements that that connection is created.

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In this story, one of Fermina’s most amusing quirks is her hatred for eggplant. She despises this vegetable, and the book is littered with references to her disgust, at one point comparing it to purple poison. And one of the most touching scenes is when she initially accepts Florentino’s youthful marriage proposal with a note stating:

Very well, I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant.

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And speaking of my father, one of the things he loved to do was cook, and he was quite an excellent one. His specialty was eggplant Parmigiana, which I thought was highly appropriate in this context. This is the method that worked for me, based on the marvelous Anna del Conte’s recipe in Gastronomy of Italy, one of my absolute favorite cookbooks.

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INGREDIENTS
2 large eggs
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
1 cup freshly grated Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
2 eggplants, cut into 1/2 inch slices, salted for an hour then rinsed
2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup fresh basil
1/2 tablespoon crushed red pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 16-oz container ricotta cheese
1 large egg, beaten
1 jar homemade marinara sauce (I got mine from Tully’s Italian Deli)
2 cups mixed grated mozzarella and fontina cheeses

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 375F. Combine 2 eggs and 1 tablespoon water in a shallow dish. Combine panko and 1/4 cup Parmeggiano-Reggiano in a second shallow dish.

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Dip eggplant slices first in the egg mixture, then in the panko mixture, and shake off the excess.

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Heat canola or peanut oil in a large skillet, and brown the eggplant slices, turning once to brown both sides. Drain on paper towels.

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Make the filling. Combine the chopped basil, the crushed red pepper, the garlic, the ricotta cheese, the egg, and the heated-through marinara sauce. Taste for seasoning and add salt or pepper as needed.

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Spoon about a half-cup of the marinara sauce mixture in the bottom of a glass Pyrex baking dish, and put a layer of eggplant slices onto the red sauce.

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Do one more layer, finish with the last of the marinara sauce mixture, cover with tinfoil and bake another 30 minutes. Remove foil and top with mozzarella and fontina. Bake another 15 minutes until the cheese is golden and melted.

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Serve alone or with pasta. I chose spinach noodles because I love the color and the taste.

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

It took me awhile to read this book, though it had been recommended by numerous friends and fellow bloggers. There are some seriously good food mentions in this book, which is partly why I read it three times. Also, it’s just an addictive read. The gist of the book is thus: As a teen, Theo loses his mother in a freak accident when the museum they are visiting is bombed. He finds another survivor who indicates he should take the famous painting “The Goldfinch,” which he does.

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Theo’s life goes through various twists and turns as he lives with his friend’s wealthy family, moves with his father and father’s girlfriend Xandra to Las Vegas where he meets the pivotal character and friend Boris – and finds his heart and compassion in rescuing Xandra’s neglected Malti-poo dog Popper – my favorite sub-plot. Ultimately, he returns to New York City and grows up with Hobie, becoming something of a shady art and antique dealer, always hiding the secret of the painting. But like all secrets, it eventually comes out.

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The characters in this book alone make it worth the read. Theo’s dad is a complete and utter loser whom I loathed and despised from day one. Xandra I hated on principle because she neglected her dog until Theo came along. Hobie was the father/friend we all want and whom I fell in love with due to his kind and unworldly heart. Popper the dog worried me so much, so concerned was I for his safety for much of the book, that I actually went online and found a webpage that addressed his safety and assures us readers that Popper lives and indeed, once he is taken under Theo’s wing, thrives. So no worries there. And then, there is Boris, Theo’s best friend from his Las Vegas days who reappears in adulthood and wreaks havoc but also is somewhat of a savior.

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Boris is sort of an anti-hero. You can’t help but like him and feel sorry for him, while at the same time, some of what he does is despicable. But……like all of us, we have our good and our bad sides, our light and our dark, and we are all complex human beings capable of great things and equally terrible things. Perhaps that’s why Boris is so fascinating.

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Manicotti is the meal Theo eats at his first dinner with his jerk father after his mother dies, so although it’s not a happy segment, it’s poignant.

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The food had arrived and I’d poured myself another large but surreptitious glass of champagne before they returned. “Yum!” said Xandra, looking glazed and a bit shiny, tugging her short skirt down, edging around and slithering back into her seat without bothering to pull her massive, bright-red plate of manicotti towards her. “Looks awesome!”

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Cara Nicoletti wrote one of my favorite blogs – Yummy Books – and posted several recipes from “The Goldfinch,” seeming to enjoy it as much as I did and sharing the same ambivalence I had about Boris. I used her version of this dish as my inspiration for today’s recipe, with – of course – a few tweaks of my own. This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
For the marinara sauce:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
6 baby carrots
1 celery rib
1 red onion
6 cloves of garlic
1 28 oz. can of San Marzano tomatoes
3 whole tomatoes, finely diced
1 cup red wine
1 tablespoon each of fresh oregano, rosemary, thyme, and basil
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon
1 tablespoon tomato paste

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For the manicotti filling:
1 tablespoon butter
1 shallot, finely diced
5 oz fresh spinach
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup shredded parmesan, divided
1 cup cream cheese, softened
Salt and pepper to taste
2 eggs
10 manicotti shells

METHOD
Make the marinara sauce first, a day ahead if possible. Finely chop the carrot, celery, onion and garlic, and cook for 10 minutes in the olive oil and butter. Add a sprinkle of salt.

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Add the canned tomatoes, the fresh tomatoes, the red wine, the bouillon, the tomato paste, and the fresh herbs. The smell is out of this world good! Stir together again, turn to a low simmer, cover, and cook for up to three hours, stirring occasionally.

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Using  a stick blender, mix the sauce until it is somewhat smooth. Refrigerate overnight.

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Finely dice the shallot and saute with the spinach. Allow to cool.

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Mix the cheeses together, season with salt and pepper, and add the two eggs. Blend well.

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Mix together the cooled spinach with the cheeses, put in a large plastic bag, and and refrigerate for an hour.

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Heat the oven to 350F. Cook the manicotti shells in boiling, salted water for 6 minutes, or until al dente. Don’t overcook them, as they will still cook in the oven. Allow to cool.

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Spread a layer of the marinara sauce in a large baking pan.

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Snip a hole in the corner of the plastic bag with the spinach and cheese filling. Fill the cooled manicotti shells by squeezing one end of the bag, kind of like a piping bag in baking.

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Lay the filled shells in the pan and cover with the rest of the marinara sauce. Sprinkle over some more parmesan cheese and bake for 30 minutes. Heaven on a plate!

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