If autumn isn't the time to cozy up in front of the fire, well, what is. So that's what we've been doing lately. Even on days where the temperature exhibits the same kind of denial that we've had ourselves about summer being over — today, for example, it was 23 degrees Celsius — the evenings are quick to cool, and the damp makes it seem autumnal after all.
At this time, more than ever, I love casseroles, because they are versatile and easy — and baking in the oven means a warmer house.
With some advance planning — because any casserole worth its weight in the oven takes at least an hour to bake — and a flexible pantry, you can whip up a meal for four or six people with an impossibly small amount of effort, and an awe-inspiring number of possibilities.
Take, for example, this particular improvised casserole, which will feed a family of four with plenty of leftovers to spare. It's loosely based on something my uncle prepared for us in Mexico the last couple of years, but simplified and improvised from the original Thai dish.
PINEAPPLE CHICK-CONUT CASSEROLE
500g boneless skinless chicken breast
1 cup diced white onion
1 green pepper
1 red pepper
1 1/2 cups pineapple (fresh or canned)
1 large fresh tomato, or 1 cup diced canned tomato
2 1/2 cups chicken stock
1 can coconut milk (light or regular)
1 cup white rice, uncooked, but rinsed once in cool water
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt & Pepper
Red pepper flakes (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Celsius.
Put your oil in a large frying pan or wok over medium high heat.
Seed and then chop your green and red peppers into pieces about 1/2 inch square. Toss the onions and peppers in the frying pan, tossing to coat evenly in oil. Stir occasionally and remove after 6 or 7 minutes. Remove, and place in a large casserole dish.
Chop chicken into 1 inch cubes.
Return pan to stove, lowering heat to medium. Toss in chicken, and some salt & pepper, stirring occasionally. When browned, add 1 cup of stock. Allow to simmer while you carry out the next step.
Chop pineapple if using fresh (to 1/2 inch pieces), or drain well if using canned. Finely chop tomato, or drain liquid if using canned. Add both ingredients to the chicken, stir a few times, and remove from heat.
If you have cilantro, chop up about 3 tablespoons worth and add to the chicken, pineapple and tomato mixture.
Dump it all into the casserole dish.
Put frying pan or wok back over medium heat, and add rice. Scrape the sides and bottom of the pan, then add remaining 1 1/2 cups chicken stock and coconut milk. Add a bit of salt and pepper, and about 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes if you have them.
Allow to heat through over low heat (about 5 minutes), then pour into casserole dish with other ingredients.
Stir gently to mix, cover, and place in oven. Set timer for 40 minutes.
When the 40 minutes is up, uncover your casserole. It should have a fair amount of liquid left on top (if not, add 1/2 cup more stock, and give a very gentle stir to mix it in)
Sprinkle the top with unsweetened coconut flakes – about 3 tablespoons worth – and place back in oven. Set the timer for 30 minutes.
When that timer dings, you're ready to eat. Garnish with some cilantro or the green parts of a green onion. Or just stick it in a bowl and sit down in front of the television with your fork, a glass of water, and the remote at your side. It's that kind of a meal.
This dish would be fantastic with some cooked and peeled shrimp added in, or for that matter, with whatever else turns your crank. The original has cashews or almonds added, so give that a whirl if you're so inclined. No matter what, you'll have plenty of food on hand.
Till next time, happy Fall cooking.