The Birth of Venus

I just started The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant and I'm already in love. Drenched in the same illumination as the gilded period it describes, the novel follows the life of a young girl living in Botticelli's Florence.

The famous painting, featuring the goddess Venus emerging from a shell in all her naked glory, serves more as a symbol than a plot device. In the painting as in the novel, Florence is set as a jewel emerging from the sea-- thus the shell. Obviously, this inspired a craving for shells of my own! While not strictly related to the painting or the book, stuffed shells are a crowd favorite.

The following recipe is adapted from two different recipes. One, Angela Liddon's (Oh She Glows!) stuffed shells and another recipe my dad's girlfriend gave me for an herb cashew cream I always use in my Italian-inspired dishes-- or at least, when I'm not just eating it straight out of the jar:

1 c cashews, soaked for at least an hour
4 TBS nutritional yeast
2 TBS tahini
2 lemons
4 bunches (about 2 c) fresh basil
3 cups fresh spinach
4 cloves of garlic
1 16 oz container of tofu
1 jar of marinara or tomato sauce
1 box jumbo shells
1 package Daiya provolone-style deli cheese slices
salt and pepper to taste

1. Cook the shells in water and olive oil for about 8 minutes according to the directions. Drain and set aside for filling. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Drain the soaked cashews, reserving about 2 TBS of the water and blend in a food processor with the juice of one lemon, salt and pepper, 1 bunch of the fresh basil (about 1/2 c), 2 cloves of garlic, and the tahini. (Optional: add 1-2 TBS more water for a creamier texture.)
3. Crumble the tofu with your hands until it resembles ricotta. Add 2 cloves of diced garlic, the juice of one lemon, salt and pepper, and 2 bunches of chopped basil. Tear up the spinach into quarter sized pieces and add along with the cashew cream mixture.
4. Spread a quarter cup of marinara sauce in the bottom of the baking pan and begin assembling shells. Use a large spoon to stuff each shell with just enough ricotta mixture to fill the shell entirely.
5. Slice the deli slices in half and lay across each shell. Cover the cheese completely with marinara sauce. (This stops the cheese from hardening in the oven and helps it melt so it's nice and gooey!)
6. Cook the stuffed shells for 35-40 minutes, until the cheese has melted. Remove and garnish with remaining basil and nutritional yeast.

My friends and I really enjoyed these and I hope you do too! May we all emerge beautifully transformed by these mythological shells.

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