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*sausage–brussels sprouts penne with creamy goat cheese sauce.

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Happy Thanksgiving and Hanukkah week, everybody!

Here on the Woodside, we're celebrating with a one-day work week, the traditional parade-family-meal triumvirate on Thanksgiving Day, and putting up the Christmas tree on Friday—which also happens to be my birthday, but it's a boring one this year, so I'm going to celebrate by bringing out the twinkly lights because they're my favorite.

In typical fashion around these parts, I volunteered to be responsible for some bits and pieces where the Thanksgiving meal is concerned—because being in the kitchen is also my favorite—and I have done zero planning. I went to the grocery store yesterday and got a pretty good preview of the punishment I'll have to endure for my procrastination.

Partly I wait until the last minute to plan because I am a notorious second-guesser, so I'm much better off making impulse decisions where dishes are concerned. But almost without fail, what ends up happening is that I return to a recipe I've made many times before. Especially when feeding a crowd, I have to agree with Ina Garten's mantra that it's much less stressful to stick to something you already know works. That way you have calm confidence, and the people you're feeding have great food.

This dish is one of those standbys for me, something I've made and modified so many times I don't even remember where I originally discovered it. It demonstrates my favorite formula for comfort food: savory heat, hearty greens, salty cheese, and—naturally—pasta.

It's a simple and easy weeknight meal, which is another reason it's become a standby, but I'm putting it here because it would also make a great way to reuse those Thanksgiving leftovers: Just stir in chopped leftover turkey in place of the sausage, and whatever Brussels sprouts you have remaining from your holiday table. After that it's just a matter of boiling the pasta and stirring through that creamy goat cheese.

After lots of trial and error with this dish, I've discovered that the easiest way to approach the Brussels sprouts and sausage is to roast them in the oven together. (It also helps the sprouts take on some of that lovely, spicy sausage flavor.) Because the little cabbage heads can sometimes be unpredictable in terms of how long they need to roast, slice your sausage a little bit thicker than you see here—you want it to come out juicy and substantial with just a little crispiness around the edges; you don't want jerky.

When it comes to goat cheese, I think the more coarsely ground black pepper, the better. In that same vein, taste often as you're seasoning—some goat cheese and sausage varieties contain more salt than others, so you don't want to overdo it.

I added a few sage leaves to the milk early on in the process, but then strained it out—that gave things a subtle woodsy flavor and aroma without the punch in the taste buds I sometimes think sage can be. Aggressive little herb.

I hope you try this dish and return to it as often as I have over the years. And I hope you have as many things to be thankful for as I do. And if you're celebrating Thanksgiving at your house tomorrow, I hope you're a lot more prepared than I am.

Enjoy!

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Sausage–Brussels Sprouts Penne with Creamy Goat Cheese Sauce

1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed
Olive oil
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Dried crushed red pepper (optional)
2 links andouille sausage, sliced
2 cups whole milk
½ white onion, very finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
6 sage leaves
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
6 ounces goat cheese
8 ounces dried whole wheat penne

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

2. Place Brussels sprouts on prepared baking sheet; drizzle lightly with olive oil, and sprinkle evenly with salt, black pepper, and red pepper, if desired. Add sausage; roast 20 to 25 minutes or until sprouts are tender and sausage is golden brown.

3. Meanwhile, stir together milk, onion, garlic, and sage leaves in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat until just barely simmering. (Do not boil.) Cook, moderating temperature if necessary, 15 minutes. Drain mixture through a fine, wire-mesh sieve, discarding solids.

4. Melt butter in a skillet over medium heat; whisk in flour and cook 1 minute. Slowly whisk in hot milk, and cook until mixture thickens slightly. Reduce heat to low, and whisk in goat cheese until smooth. Season to taste with salt and black pepper, and keep warm.

5. Cook pasta in boiling salted water according to package directions. Stir together hot pasta, roasted Brussels sprouts and sausage, and goat cheese sauce. Top with additional black pepper, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

 
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*focaccia.

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It is not a well-kept secret that I can't bake.

For some reason, from the start of every attempt, my confidence wavers, panic sets in, and my brain shifts firmly into the off position. In my mild defense, every time I feel I've followed the directions to the letter, somehow things do not turn out as they should.

Fortunately in my case, this isn't a devastating handicap—baked goods are not generally as high on my list as, say, cheese. Or pasta.

Though to be fair, I am not sure I could make either of those things, either.

Flour flummoxes me. I think I'm always using too much or too little, and I cannot measure it without simultaneously getting it all over my floor, countertop, and person.

I don't know exactly what is meant by "mix just until combined," but it's a veritable guarantee that if I pour any sort of batter into any sort of pan, there's going to be a glump of dry ingredients at the bottom of the bowl.

My oven only has two speeds: undercooked and probably dangerous in the middle, or dry and dense enough to make a nice homebuilding material.

But by far my greatest nemesis is yeast. What do you mean, "put in a warm place (free from drafts)"? What do you mean, "add warm water"? WHAT IS WARM?

Luckily I am a fact-checker by trade, and I am not one to let a stinky little microorganism get the best of me. So I got me to the Google, and learned a few things.

A) Warm water = somewhere between 105 and 110 degrees. Yes, I used a thermometer to measure it; I'm not a wizard.

B) A warm place = well, frankly, a lot of things. Based on the Internets, people have had to imagine all sorts of locations for proofing breads and pastries, everything from the top of the refrigerator to the inside of the clothes dryer. I used two of the simplest suggestions I could find (my dryer is outside in an uninsulated room, so that wasn't going to work): Place a cup of water inside the microwave, and heat until boiling—this worked when the dough was in the mixing bowl—and place a pan of water in the lower half of the oven, then preheat the oven to 200 for five minutes—this worked while the dough proofed on the sheet pan.

And finally, if there's one thing I know about having two left feet in the kitchen, it's that it's best to start simple. I decided to try Anne Burrell's focaccia recipe, because I had the good fortune to have watched her prepare it on her show. (She made it look so easy!)

Things I learned: Baking is a patient person's game. (I believe we just discovered the root of my failures.) There's a lot of hanging around and waiting in bread-making, while you let the yeast do its job. Baking is a lot about going by feel. That takes practice, which I still need—I'm not sure if my dough was too tacky or too dry, but I didn't exactly get the fluffy center I hoped for.

HOWEVER, the dough rose successfully twice (!) and the finished product was super delicious, even if it had a slightly chewier texture and slimmer profile than I was aiming for.

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It made for a delicious BFD (breakfast for dinner, potty mouth)—eggs and soldiers, served up very simply with a chai latte, six-minute eggs (get that recipe here), and seconds-before-burning bacon. Which is the only way to make bacon.

The next day, my focaccia experiment made for a fabulous three cheese/bacon panino, and I was doubly sold on the miracle of making your bread yourself.

Baking! I done it! And I think I'm going to do it again. You should, too!

Enjoy!

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Focaccia
adapted from a recipe by Anne Burrell
1¾ cups warm water (between 105 and 110 degrees)
1 package active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
Coarse sea salt

1. Combine first 3 ingredients in a small bowl. Place bowl in a warm place 15 minutes or until yeast bubbles and is aromatic.

2. Combine flour, kosher salt, ½ cup olive oil, and yeast mixture in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook at low speed until dough comes together. Increase mixer speed to medium, and beat 5 to 6 minutes or until dough is smooth and soft. (Sprinkle with flour if dough is overly sticky.)

3. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface, and knead by hand 1 or 2 times. (Sprinkle with flour if dough is overly sticky.) Coat mixer bowl lightly with olive oil, and return dough to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and place in a warm place at least 1 hour or until dough doubles in size.

4. Coat baking sheet with remaining ½ cup olive oil. Transfer dough to prepared baking sheet, pressing out to fill pan. Turn dough over, and continue to stretch dough to fit baking sheet, spreading with your fingers to make holes all the way through dough. Place baking sheet in a warm place at least 1 hour or until dough doubles in size.

5. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Sprinkle dough liberally with coarse sea salt, and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool before serving. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

 
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*seared filet with tomato and fresh mozzarella.

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You know that warm, contented, even feeling you get when you do something for someone else? It can be anything—offering a ride to the airport, taking care of a pet, loaning your wedges when someone has nothing to wear with her new pants—but by far the fastest and easiest way to get there is by cooking. By and large, people love to have someone make a meal for them. It's comforting and stress-relieving and generous, and those are all wonderful feelings to both give and receive.

But as it turns out, you can (and I would argue, ought to) achieve the same sense of happy, self-high-fiving bliss when you cook for one.

There are a lot of rules out there that are alleged to improve the lives of single people: Eat at a proper  table. Don't eat in front of the TV. Don't dip pretzels in the tub of cream cheese and call it dinner.

I break all of those rules. Stop judgin' me, Internet advice columns. I like my couch and my Big Bang Theory and my sleeves of saltines, and I shan't apologize for it.

But the truth is that there are a lot of perks to being the only one in the house who brings home the bacon, shall we say. No one else gets to say, "I don't like mushrooms" or "Do you have to put avocado on everything?" or "Sweetie, I love you and I love turkey sandwiches, but I think this is bordering on obsession and we might need to call in some medical professionals if you don't eat something else."

It also means that, because you aren't trying to please vast numbers of all manner of people, every now and again even your recession-strained budget will let you indulge a little.

So yes I did buy this $14 filet mignon on a Tuesday night. I ate half of it with this pretty little wedge of iceberg and then turned the other half into a steak salad for lunch the next day, which technically makes this a $7 steak dinner, which technically makes this worth every penny.

The steak is loosely based on Ina's method: hot pan, sear, roast, rest. Grills are great if that's your bag, but I'm unlikely to fire up some charcoal on a weeknight when I'm just cooking for me. (Or ever, really. Fire is hot and I am clumsy.)

When I decided to make this a Caprese steak, I forgot one teensy little detail: It's late October. I took a chance and got super lucky with what has to have been the absolute last of the good late-summer tomatoes. I didn't have high hopes for it given that it had lost some of that plump cheerfulness you like to see in an Alabama mater, but when I sliced into it it was absolutely perfect.

There's a decent chance I stood at the stovetop and seared the steak with one hand while I jammed slices of juicy tomato and cold fresh mozzarella into my mouth with the other.

Reducing the balsamic is just the easiest thing in the world to do; you leave it to bubble away in a pan and let your nose tell you when it's syrupy and thick. (Wait for things to smell sweet and smoky, but do keep a half an eye on the pan so it doesn't burn!) I could even have let it reduce a bit further in this case, but I was hungry. You can see that it cascaded off the hot, melty cheese, but pooled into a dark, sticky puddle around the steak. Ain't nothin' wrong with that.

I was lazy with my wedge salad, because that's exactly what a wedge salad allows you to be. A hunk of iceberg, a drizzle of dressing, and a smattering of store-bought bacon bits were all I needed. A proper wedge salad would benefit from thick chunks of blue cheese, crispy pieces of real bacon, and bits of chopped tomato, but I had piled so many layers of goodness onto my steak that I wanted to keep things simple.

A simple salad. A splurge on a steak topped with gooey, salty cheese and sweet, lightly roasted tomato. Big, bold flecks of freshly ground black pepper all over everything. Make it for you and yours some Tuesday soon! 

Or, better yet, wait until they're out of the house and make it all for you.

Enjoy!

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Seared Filet with Tomato and Fresh Mozzarella

¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 (10-ounce) filet mignon
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tomato slice
2 fresh mozzarella cheese slices

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat a grill pan or cast iron skillet over high heat 5 to 7 minutes or until very hot.

2. Meanwhile, pat steak dry with a paper towel, and sprinkle with kosher salt and black pepper on all sides. Cook steak about 2 minutes on all sides or until evenly seared (about 10 minutes total).

3. Top steak with tomato and mozzarella; place pan in oven, and cook until a thermometer inserted in thickest portion of the steak reaches 125 degrees (for medium-rare).

4. Remove steak from pan, cover loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest 10 minutes.

5. Place balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vinegar has reduced by half. Drizzle over steak before serving. Makes 1 serving.

 

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I am a work in progress. I perpetually need a hair cut. I'm totally devoted to my remarkable nieces and nephew. I am an elementary home cook and a magazine worker bee. (Please criticize my syntax and spelling in the comments.) I think my dog is hilarious. I like chicken and spicy things. I have difficulty being a grown-up. Left to my own devices, I will eat enormous amounts of cheese snacks of all kinds.

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