A Cozy Chicken Casserole for a Wintery Day

This is so hot out of the oven that it's still bubbling! Lovely!

This is not one of those things that photographs well on a plate. Here it is fresh out of the oven…so hot that it’s still bubbling! Lovely.

Tomorrow marks the American Thanksgiving holiday celebration and the real beginning of the big holiday season. It seems like time—which has already flown this year—is speeding up incrementally each moment that passes. Yes, I’ll admit it, I’m feeling the pressure!

But this week I’m taking some time to give thanks and count the many blessings in my life. I give thanks for my supportive family (you know who you are) and friends who have helped us survive this rather traumatic year. Thanks for our home being repaired and secured, and the ability to stay warm and fed during the cold months ahead. And thanks to my loving husband for the 15 years of marriage we will celebrate this Thanksgiving Day!

Our young owl friend in the back yard.

Our young owl friend in the back yard.

As I sit here writing this post, I hear an owl just outside my window hooting and hunting as dusk falls. We have owls around here most of the year, awesome creatures—beautiful and yet terrifying if you’re the target of their dinner. A family of Red Tail hawks lives a few doors down from us and we see and hear them quite often, too.

And a couple of weeks ago my husband snapped this image of one of three pileated woodpeckers (Woody Woodpecker!) This one hung around in our back yard feeding on bugs in the pines for a while, and you can see the bug in its beak. Though they are loud birds, they are quite shy, so it was really a coupe for him to catch this one with a snap!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll of this rather natural and country living, right here in the deep heart of a metropolitan area. Blessed, I’m tellin’ ya!

I’m in the mood for a little comfort food at the moment to chase away the chilly rain, very high winds and wintery mix we’re having down south, so I made up this little casserole to fit that bill. Maybe this came about because I was thinking of the holiday foods ahead, because it definitely has the chicken and dressing kind of action going on here. But it was actually inspired by my Tarragon Pecan Chicken Salad which seems to be a favorite of Pinterest pinners. The texture of this casserole is wonderfully comforting—nutty, chewy, savory and a teensy bit creamy, with a tiny hit of sweet from the grapes and the tarragon. It ticks off all the boxes, without being a super creamy, fat laden casserole—which I like as well as anyone, but don’t need this time of year! It takes some effort and a few dishes, but it makes a lot and the taste is definitely worthwhile. It also reheats well in the microwave. You can run your cursor over, or click on any image below to read through the process, or to see a larger image slideshow.

To all of those who celebrate, have a blessed and Happy Thanksgiving and a Happy Hannukah as well. And I hope everyone has a happy, fun and safe weekend ahead.

Chicken, Wild Rice, Pecan and Roasted Grape Casserole
Makes about 8 servings

2 cups red seedless grapes, washed
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 bone-in and skin on chicken breasts, (about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 lbs. with bone)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
pinch of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cups long grain and wild rice blend, uncooked
1 teaspoon kosher salt
6 cups low sodium chicken stock, or homemade
1 cup finely diced celery (about 2 stalks)
1 cup peeled and finely diced shallot (about 4 medium shallots)
1/2 cup pecans, lightly toasted and chopped
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
1 Tablespoon flour
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup low fat milk
1/2 cup additional chicken stock (I use rendered juice from cooking the chicken breasts)
1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper plus more to taste
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon leaves
1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Lightly grease a large ovenproof casserole (I use enamelware) with olive oil and set aside. Heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Cover a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and lightly grease it with olive oil. Place the washed grapes on the cookie sheet and toss them in 1 teaspoon of olive oil to coat. Roast the grapes in the oven for 10-12 minutes, until they are shiny and plump. Remove and set aside to cool. Reduce the heat in the oven to 375 degrees F.

Lightly oil a glass dish that will comfortably fit the two chicken breasts and place them in it. Drizzle the 1 Tablespoon of olive oil over both breasts and sprinkle each with a tiny bit of kosher salt and black pepper. Bake the chicken in the oven for about 35 -45 minutes at 375 degrees F, until done and the juices run clear when pierced with a knife. Remove from the oven and cover with aluminum foil. Allow the chicken to rest for 10 minutes, then uncover and remove the chicken to a plate to cool, reserving any drippings in the pan. When the chicken is cool enough to touch, remove the meat from the bones and tear it into bite sized pieces with your hands, discarding the skin and bones. Set the meat aside.

While the chicken is baking, put the rice into a large, heavy saucepan and cover with the six cups chicken stock and 1 teaspoon of kosher salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer and cover. Cook until the rice is just al dente and almost all liquid has been absorbed, about 35 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand covered for about 5 minutes, then transfer to a very large mixing bowl.

In a large, non-stick skillet, melt the 1 Tablespoon of butter over medium heat, then add the chopped celery and shallots, a pinch of kosher salt and black pepper, and sauté until the shallot is becoming transparent, about 5 minutes. Add the flour and stir, cooking it for about a minute, then slowly add in the milk, then the sour cream, stirring until smooth. Add the drippings from the chicken (or the additional 1/2 cup stock if you prefer), 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper, and allow the sauce to cook for a minute or two until thickened slightly, stirring, then turn off the heat.

Slice the cooled, roasted grapes in half and add them to the rice in the large mixing bowl. Add the chopped toasted pecans, the chicken and the sauce and stir to combine well. Add the tarragon and 1/2 cup of cheese to the mixture and stir to combine. Taste for seasoning and adjust, if needed, by adding more kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Spoon the chicken and rice mixture into the large prepared casserole dish, smoothing the top, and sprinkle the top with the remaining 2 Tablespoons of cheese. Bake at 375 degrees F for 35-45 minutes until the mixture is bubbling and the cheese is golden brown. Remove from the oven and serve hot. Great with a salad or roasted green beans.