Earlier this week, I was at my local Sprouts trying to figure out what I was going to have for my meals for the next few days. First, I saw that the boneless skinless chicken thighs were on sale, so that was definitely going to be the protein. Next, I needed to figure out what the vegetable was going to be with the chicken. While going through the vegetable section, I spotted some butternut squash, and inspiration flashed in my mind.
First I have a recipe that I do, of chicken thighs and zucchini, that I bake with a mix of fresh oregano, rosemary and sage; finished with a lemon sauce that rounds out the dish really well. I figured that if I did that same recipe with butternut squash, there’s not reason it wouldn’t work. I decided to buy a couple of decent sized butternut squash and would give it a shot:
Next, I peeled and diced the butternut squash, then minced up the fresh herbs that I had in the fridge from a previous cooking job for a customer, as well as a few cloves of garlic. I added the garlic because the original recipe that I’m basing this off of was a garlic-roasted butternut squash recipe, and I wanted to include that garlic in the combined dish. Finally, I tossed the butternut squash with the herbs, the chicken thighs, and maybe 3 tablespoons of peanut oil. I then roasted everything in an oven preheated to 400F until the internal temperature reached 160F. As you can see, I had a pretty full roasting pan…more on that in a second:
Here is where the issues started to arise. One of the important things in cooking that my mentor talked about, is that mistakes are where learning happens. When something goes wrong, you have the opportunity to figure out exactly what went wrong, why, and how to prevent that from happening in the future. With this take on the recipe, two things went wrong. First, my pan was far too full, so much so that it took wayyyy too much time to cook the chicken to the correct internal temperature.
Second, when I normally roast the butternut squash on its own, there really isn’t that much moisture in it. This is important, because water breaks down things when you cook with it present. However, the chicken thighs contain a large amount of water, that purges out when heat is applied to it. What happened with this situation is that the butternut squash didn’t receive the good browning that it normally gets when you roast it on its own. (Side note, browning of food actually can NOT happen in the presence of water, something that’s important in a myriad of different recipes) Also, the texture of the squash was compromised to some degree, because the water broke it down and it became mushy.
Anyway, enough negatives. The flavor of this dish really worked, which was a pleasant surprise. The herbs were a great compliment to the flavors of the dish. Also, the lemon sauce truly worked with the squash, something I was worried about. I thought that maybe the lemon sauce was best paired with the zucchini. Here’s the sauce that I made by combining lemon juice, sugar and cornstarch, then bringing it to a simmer:
As you might be able to tell, there is really no browning on the butternut squash. This is what happens when there’s water throughout the cooking process. However, because the chicken was elevated by the squash, it had some browning on it, which brings a ton of flavor the the dish. I then took out the chicken, cut it into bite-sized pieces, then tossed it all back together with the lemon sauce and some salt and pepper. Here’s the final dish, all tossed together and ready to enjoy:
I DID add some salt and pepper to the dish before I put it into the oven, but with all the water that the chicken kicked off I figured that the seasoning had been washed away by the water. Also, I noticed that as I was tossing the chicken and squash back together with the sauce, that the squash was really mushy and was breaking down with my tongs. This is where I decided that while this recipe MOSTLY worked, I needed to make some improvements the next time.
First, I need to cook the butternut squash on its own, roasted separately from the chicken. This will allow it to properly roast, give it the browning that I’m looking for, and definitely improve the texture issues that it had this time around.
Second, when I roast the chicken and herbs I need to do it elevated in the pan to keep the water away from the chicken. By keeping the water off the chicken, I will get that fantastic Maillard reaction that adds a ton of flavor to roasted meat. Then I can toss the diced chicken with the butternut squash and lemon sauce, and will have a GREAT dish.
In summation, don’t be afraid to try new recipes, that don’t necessarily seem like they’d work the first time. Also, when things *don’t* work, learn from the mistakes, and make improvements for the next time. I now have a new recipe for chicken thighs, that I’ll definitely be using for customers that are a little reticent to have zucchini. All because I decided to mash up two recipes together, and turned out extremely well. Updated recipe below:
2 large butternut squash
3 garlic cloves, minced
As needed, olive oil
3 lb boneless,skinless chicken thighs
As needed, peanut oil
1/4 C lemon juice
1 Tablespoon sugar
2 tsp. corn starch
1) Peel and dice the butternut squash into one-inch pieces
2) Toss the squash with the minced garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper, then roast in an oven preheated to 400F for 25 minutes
3) While the squash is cooking, minced up the herbs very well, toss with the chicken and some peanut oil, then roast chicken elevated in a pan, until internal temperature reaches 160F
4) while the chicken is roasting, bring the lemon juice, sugar and cornstarch to a simmer in a pan until it starts to simmer and thickens. Set aside until the chicken and squash is done.
5) When the chicken is done, remove from the oven and let rest for five minutes, then cut into bite-sized pieces. Toss everything together and serve warm.