Halloween has just passed, and all the leaves of the trees around my apartment have transformed by now into shades of deep reds and oranges. Although the weather has been a bit fickle over the last few weeks, surprising us with random days of 75 degrees plus temperatures, this week was the first that really felt like Autumn. And with that realization came an intense desire to cook something as full of Autumn flavors as I possibly could dream up, less than a month before the ultimate Fall feast itself, Thanksgiving.
This meal has all the Autumn flavors we crave this time of year, including the slightly acidic sweetness of apple cider, the dark, rich sugary taste of maple, the deep herbaciousness of sage and the ultimate Fall vegetable, butternut squash.
Serves 4. Cook time: about 1.5 hours.
For the chicken:
-4 large chicken thighs, bone in and skin on
-2 cups of apple cider
-1 cup of chicken broth
-2 tbsp butter
-2 tbsp flour
-1/4 cup heavy cream
For the squash:
-1 medium-sized butternut squash, cut in half, stem sliced off, seeds removed
-1/4 cup heavy cream
-4 tbsp butter, divided
-1/3 cup maple syrup
-3 tbsp finely chopped sage leaves, stems removed (you can use less if you’d like, but I have an obsession with sage)
For the cornbread:
-3 cups yellow cornmeal
-2 tbsp baking soda
-1.5 tbsp salt
-1 1/3 cup buttermilk
-1 large egg
-1 tbsp maple syrup
-8 tbsp bacon fat (butter works fine as a substitute, but I had some leftover bacon fat I was dying to try out on this recipe)
-1 can corn, drained well
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a dutch oven or a pan with tall sides, melt some butter on medium-high heat. Season the chicken thighs well with salt and pepper, and when the butter is melted and the pan is hot, sear the thighs on all sides.
2. While the chicken is searing, place the squash halves on a sheet pan and top each piece with a tablespoon of butter in the center. Add a generous amount of salt to both sides, and place on the lower rack of the oven.
3. When the chicken is well-browned, add the cider and broth (I used leftover broth from last week’s ships basta, a recipe that will be your new favorite thing in the world, but that will come at a later time). Bring to a boil, then to a simmer, and cover.
4. Get started on the cornbread. Melt 2 tbsp of bacon fat in a large cast iron skillet on medium-high. In one medium-sized bowl, mix the cornmeal, salt and baking soda. In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, eggs and syrup. Melt the remaining bacon fat in the microwave, and drizzle it into the wet mixture while whisking.
5. Combine the ingredients by adding the dry to the wet, one half at a time. If the consistency is too thin (it should not be runny) add some more cornmeal. If it’s so thick you can’t whisk with ease, add a splash or two more of buttermilk. Mix in the corn and whisk until just evenly distributed.
6. Pour the batter into the hot skillet, then immediately turn the heat off and place in the oven on the second to top rack. This should cook for approximately 20 minutes, or until the top is a light golden-brown and a toothpick comes out clean.
7. Now is a good time to check your squash. If you can easily stick a fork through, it’s done. Remove from heat and set onto a cutting board.
8. While the cornbread is cooling, you will now have to deal with the task of getting the skin off the squash. After about ten minutes, the squash should be cool enough to touch. While you can peel it off with your fingers, you might risk having to pick orange bits of mush out of your fingernails for the remainder of the day. I stand each half on its side, and using a very sharp chef’s knife, I place the blade just lightly against the skin and slice it off.
9. Chop each half into 8 pieces and toss in the food processor. Add the sage, cream, remaining butter and syrup, along with a generous pinch of salt. After reaching the desired consistency, taste a bit and add more salt if needed.
10. The liquid in which the chicken is cooking should have reduced a decent amount by now. Taste for seasoning, and flip the chicken pieces. Place the lid back on.
11. Flip the cornbread onto your cutting board and slice into wedges. Sneak a slice, because cornbread is delicious.
12. At this point, your kitchen should smell amazing. After the chicken has been simmering another ten minutes, remove the lid and check if the chicken is done. You should be able to easily piece a thigh with a fork, and it should appear to be almost coming off the bone. When the chicken is fully cooked, place it on a plate to cool, leaving the sauce in the pan.
13. Bring the temperature up to high to further reduce the sauce. When the sauce is about 1/4 inch high in the pan, add the cream and then add to it the two tbsp of flour combined with 4 tbsp water in a small cup (this is known as a slurry). Quickly whisk in the slurry to avoid clumps. Within several minutes the sauce should thicken to a gravy-like consistency.
14. Place a wedge of cornbread on a plate, and spoon alongside it the squash puree. Lay a chicken thigh on top and spoon the gravy over the whole thing. Enjoy.