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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

October 23: Chicken & Wild Rice Casserole with Butternut Squash & Craisins

Last year my girls were in soccer. The months of September through November were a nightmare for me because I was stuck sitting outside in either humid, gnatty conditions or frigid, wet-grass-clippy conditions. There seemed no in between on that front. Two nights and one weekend morning a week, we trekked to and from the field amidst screaming, crying, and temper tantrums. Sometimes the girls complained, too. (LOL!) 

So this year, you can imagine my delight when my daughters not only both chose new activities—activities they love and look forward to attending once a week (great for them!) and activities that are indoor in climate-controlled locales (great for me!). The one challenge of this new schedule is that we have two nights a week wherein we need to eat dinner not long after the girls get home from school so we can finish homework, change clothes, and get out the door in time for 5:30 and 6 o’clock classes. That means I’ve been relying on quick-cooking and/or simple recipes for these days to help move that process along. (Bonus if I can complete some prep work in advance.)

That fact—and because I happened to have a butternut squash on my counter which I bought in a squash-buying frenzy at the same time I picked up that delicata squash a couple weeks back—is how I came to make this chicken-rice-squash-craisin casserole I found on the Well Plated by Erin blog. 

I made this one of the days I was home nursing my cold. Which meant I had time in the afternoon to prep the chicken (I mentioned before how much I hate working with chicken thighs because I can’t stand trimming them. Well, that’s still the case. The meat is so tender and juicy, but the prep sucks royally. Especially having to cut it into bite-sized pieces.) and place it in a zipper bag to use later.
Seriously, though, it's supposed to be boneless & skinless.
Why is there always that gross pile of stuff still on it (see left)?
I also peeled and chopped my butternut squash and onion. Completing that work ahead of time made the dinner-making process incredibly fast! Here's a quick squash-prep tutorial for you:
Use a potato peeler tool to peel the skin from the squash.
Cut the two ends off using a knife. 
Slice the squash in half vertically. Use a spoon to scoop out the seeds. 
Slice the bowl part of the squash from the solid longer part (top right)
Slice the bowl part into smile-shaped pieces (bottom left), then dice the smiles (top left)
Cut the solid longer piece vertically into two (middle)
Dice each of the two solid longer pieces as shown (lower right)
That's a pound and a half of beautiful diced squash!
But even if you don’t have time to do it all early, your rice can cook while you prep your chicken, and you can peel and chop your squash while your chicken cooks. Your oven can preheat while your squash and onion cook. 

Chicken and Wild Rice Casserole with Butternut Squash & Craisins
Yield: 6 servings


1 cup uncooked wild rice blend (3 cups cooked) –because it was the perfect portion, I used a box of Long Grain & Wild Rice with a seasoning packet, and didn’t add the seasoning packet
4 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 ¼ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 medium onion, diced
1 ½ pounds butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 5 cups)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 Tablespoon fresh thyme
¾ cup dried cranberries (like Craisins) 
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided 


Cook rice according to package directions. Once cooked, set aside.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly coat a 9×13-inch baking dish with cooking spray and set aside.

In a large, deep skillet, heat 2 Tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Sautee diced chicken until no longer pink on the inside. It’s about 6-8 minutes, depending on the size of your chicken pieces.  Remove to a paper towel-lined plate and set aside.
Uncooked (ew)
Use another paper towel to wipe the skillet clean. Then heat the remaining 2 Tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the diced squash, onions, salt, and pepper. Sauté about 2 minutes, or until the onion begins to soften. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the squash is tender but still not mushy, about 6-8 minutes. 
At first
After 2 minutes, add the lid and cook for 6-8 more
After cooking
Stir in craisins, cooked chicken, rice, and 1/4 cup Parmesan.
  Oh yeah, and the thyme. Don't forget that!

Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish. 
Bake for 20 minutes, then remove and sprinkle with the other 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. (The original recipe calls for you to bake it an additional 5 minutes, until the cheese melts, but I didn't bother.) 

Here’s the thing about this meal. I mentioned how I made it the day I had a cold. By the time dinner rolled around, I’d lost my sense of taste. So although I ate it, I couldn’t taste it. (Does this happen to you? It always happens to me when I’m sick. Once my sinuses become congested, I can’t taste a thing. It usually lasts for 3-4 miserable days.) I spent all of dinner watching my family eat and asking if it was good. They all said yes, though—full disclosure—my kids only ate some of the squash and picked around the rest. I moped, quite concerned I wouldn’t be able to comment on the flavor since I couldn’t taste it. Lucky for me, my cold was hella accelerated and I enjoyed a serving reheated for lunch two days later. I really enjoyed it. The squash lends a sweetness, the cranberries a chewy burst of bright acidity, while the chicken and rice come together to make it filling. I enjoyed the flavor a lot. 
Yummy as dinner or lunch!
It occurred to me, though, that I’m not sure this needs to be a casserole. To save time and effort (of cutting stupid chicken thighs into bite-sized pieces), I’d make the squash-craisin-rice mixture on its own and serve it atop or alongside a baked chicken thigh or breast. I don’t think anything would be lost doing it that way. 

No matter how—or if—you slice it, I’d make this again, and I’d suggest you do, too. The harmonious blend of flavors is second only to the harmonious joy in my heart over not eating it before soccer practice. 

**I have no affiliation or relationship with any of the brands mentioned or linked in this post. All opinions and experiences expressed herein are my own.**

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