Finally fall is in the air. I mean, sure, I got really hot when I wore a sweater this week, but at least there was enough chill that I could even imagine wearing a sweater. The leaves are not yet turning, just sort of browning, but I am fully ready for the flavors of fall. Warming soups, rich and hearty casseroles, chilis and stews. But we ain’t there yet.
I consider this a transitional dish – warming and comforting like the best winter stews, but a bit lighter and brighter. It’s got the great apple-y flavor of fall. Hard cider is a wonderful ingredient, adding zip and tang, but with a nice mellow depth. I choose leeks and fennel here for a unique flavor that sings with the cider. Woodsy marjoram marries beautifully and that hit of grainy mustard as the delicious zip. All this makes a perfect early Autumn dinner, but I admit to serving at any time of year.
I love this chicken spooned over earthy celery root mash for added layers of flavor. You could certainly serve it over simple mashed potatoes, or noodles, or eat it on its own with some good bread to soak up the creamy sauce.
Cider Chicken Casserole
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 large fennel bulb
1 yellow onion
3 leeks, white and pale green parts
6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup chicken broth
12 ounces hard cider, such as Stella Artois Cidre
4 sprigs marjoram
3 Tablespoons grainy mustard
¼ cup crème fraiche
Finely dice the fennel bulb, then finely dice the onion. Slice the leeks in half, and then in thin half-moons. Rinse the leeks under water and shake as much water as possible from them. Cut the chicken into bite sized chunks, a little on the larger side. I like to do this with scissors.
Melt 6 Tablespoons of the butter in a large Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add the fennel and onions and stir to coat in butter. Sauté, stirring frequently until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the leeks and stir well. Continue cooking, stirring frequently, until everything is soft and glassy and beginning to color. When the vegetables are soft, add the chicken, salt and pepper and stir to coat with the butter. Cook, stirring, until the chicken is beginning to brown on the outside. Add the remaining 2 Tablespoons of butter and allow it to melt. Sprinkle over the flour and stir to combine – until no dry flour is visible. Pour over the broth and cider and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, then tuck the marjoram stems into the pot and simmer until the chicken is cooked through, about 30 minutes. Stir through the mustard and crème fraiche and until heated through. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately, or cool, cover and refrigerate overnight. Reheat gently over low heat.
Celery Root Mash
2 medium or one large celery root (about 2 pounds)
2 russet potatoes (about 1 pound)
3 cups milk
1 cup white wine
2 cups chicken broth
6 Tablespoons butter, at room temperature
Cut the tough peel off the celery and cut the flesh into rough chunks. Peel the potatoes and cut into rough chunks. Put them both in a large pot and cover with the milk, broth and wine and a couple of tablespoons of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the vegetables are very soft. Do not worry if the liquid looks a little curdled. Use a slotted spoon to drain and transfer the vegetables to the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the butter and beat until smooth and creamy, adding salt to taste. You can spoon in a little cooking liquid if needed. Transfer the mash to a serving bowl. You can cool, cover and refrigerate the mash for one day. Reheat in the oven, pouring a little milk over the top.