I was in my mid-30s before I really learned how to cook. I taught myself by making a lot of mistakes and then I just kept making the things that tasted good. This means that, though I love trying new things, I do have a repertoire of tried-and-true recipes that I cook again and again and again, like hamburger stew, tuna casserole, chili, pot roast, chicken enchiladas and slow-cooker tacos. They’re not pushing any culinary envelopes but they are delicious and filling. Perhaps I’m boring but I don’t get tired of them and neither does my family (or maybe they’ve just been polite all these years).
One of my old standards is a one-dish dinner that I call That Chicken Thing. For the purposes of this article, let’s give it a more elegant name, such as Baked Autumn Chicken. Or maybe it ought to be called simply Baked Chicken, since this is a meal that can be adjusted to reflect any season. I usually use potatoes, carrots and onions — traditional fall vegetables — but I’ve also used sweet potatoes, cauliflower, peppers, marinated artichokes, cherry tomatoes, green beans, parsnips, butternut squash and summer squash. I’ve made it with rainbow carrots and fingerling potatoes. I’d be interested to try it with Brussels sprouts. (I have made it with broccoli. Don’t do that. The broccoli turns yellow and goes all mushy and smells weird.)
No matter what you put in it, the basic idea is the same: Bake everything together in one covered casserole dish until the chicken is falling off the bone and the vegetables are tender. While the chicken is cooking, the juices run off and infuse the vegetables with flavor. The chicken likewise absorbs some of the vegetable essence along with whatever herbs and spices you add. The result is a savory, hearty meal that leaves only one baking dish for cleanup. What could be nicer?
Don’t be put off by the fact that this is so easy, anyone could have thought of it. You are right. You probably already make some version of this dish. A sheet-pan chicken meal or chicken tray bake is very similar; just put all the components on a single tray and cook until done. My baked chicken is different in one important respect: It cooks with a cover, so all the moisture, and therefor all the flavor, stays inside. The vegetables don’t get the crispy, roasted edges that tray-baked veggies do, which I’ll admit is lovely. Instead, the veggies soak up all those good chicken juices and make you say “mmmm” when you put a forkful in your mouth.
No matter what other veggies you’re going to use, this dish starts with olive oil and an onion. Pour a generous tablespoon of olive oil over the bottom of a large, covered casserole dish so that it coats the entire horizontal surface. Then cut up a whole onion and put it in the bottom of the dish along with ¼ teaspoon salt, spreading it out so there’s a little bit of onion everywhere. Next, add the herbs and spices. You can go crazy here and spiff it up anyway you like. For the fall, I always add fresh chopped sage. Then I add whatever else strikes my fancy: paprika, lemon pepper, rosemary and thyme (fresh or dried), garlic salt, umami mushroom flavoring. Be generous with the herbs and spices because they will absorb into the chicken and vegetables while cooking.
Now for the zinger. Add two slices of uncooked bacon, chopped into small bits and sprinkled over the onion. You might think, “Bacon! More is always better!” But, at least in this instance, you don’t want bacon to be the star of the show. You just want to add a bit of that delicious bacon essence to the whole proceedings.
The next layer is chicken. I usually use a package of drumsticks because they’re so economical, but I also like to use bone-in chicken thighs. I have not tried using a whole cut-up fryer, but I don’t see why that wouldn’t work. You just might need a bigger dish.
Arrange the chicken on top and sprinkle with a little olive oil, an additional ¼ teaspoon salt, and additional herbs and spices. (I like the use paprika on top of the chicken because it provides an appetizing rosy glow.)
Now for the vegetables. For a classic baked chicken, dice two medium Russet potatoes. There’s no need to take the peels off unless you really dislike peels, in which case, peel with abandon. Tuck the potatoes in around the chicken. Next, slice two large carrots. Once again, there’s no need to peel them; they’re just going to nestle up with the other vegetables and peels won’t make a difference.
At this point, you might think you’ve got too many vegetables in there, but you can fit more on top of the chicken. I added 1 cup of frozen tri-color peppers for eye-pleasing splashes of red, green and yellow. You could used jarred roasted peppers or you could cut up a whole fresh red or orange bell pepper.
I use a 2.5-quart casserole dish to make my baked chicken and I just squish the lid down on top of everything and stick it in the oven. The vegetables will soften and reduce as they cook and the lid will close completely. But before I put on the lid, I add a final drizzle of olive oil over the vegetables and sprinkle the veggies with another ¼ teaspoon salt. I like to top everything off with five whole sage leaves because they smell so good while the chicken is baking.
Bake for an hour at 400 degrees. That’s a high temperature but it really gets the steam going inside the casserole dish and the chicken becomes fall-off-the-bone tender. Take the dish out of the oven about halfway through to stir the vegetables so they’ll be evenly coated in herbalicious chicken juices. Move the chicken to the top of the vegetables, if possible, then put the lid back on. The skin won’t get crispy, although it might get a little brown; you’re trading crispiness for tenderness with this recipe. Allow to cool a little before serving so you and your dinner companions won’t burn your tongues. Keep ice water on hand just in case. Welcome to November.