I have to admit – casseroles aren’t usually my thing, but this combination inspired me. It’s based on a side-dish casserole that impressed me many years ago when I was in culinary school. We served this cheesy, apple and squash-filled casserole as part of an autumn buffet. I remember being incredibly skeptical when I first read the ingredients. I wasn’t accustomed to casseroles in the first place, let alone one that combined cheese and apples. (I had a lot to learn about what a great pairing that actually is. Cheddar and apples go together like bread and butter!)
But when all the layers came together in sweet-savory-cheesy-crunchy harmony, I was converted – at least for this particular casserole. The addition of chicken turns it into a main dish, and with full servings of protein and produce it’s hearty enough that you don’t even need a side – although a green salad never hurts.
Granny Smith apples are an important choice for this casserole. They won’t lose their shape when cooked, and their tartness lends to the savory nature of the dish. When you cut your butternut squash for this recipe, focus on the neck of the squash because it’s easiest to cut into half-moons. You want evenly cut 1/4-inch slices for layering in the casserole. Same goes for the apples and chicken. Thin, consistent slices make for a casserole that bakes evenly and is easy to serve. Sautéing the squash and onions gives them a head start so that everything cooks perfectly once the casserole is put together. A light coating of flour on the apples thickens the juices released by the apples and chicken as they cook, so the casserole is moist but not soupy.
This casserole has a decidedly Thanksgiving-like flavor that’s perfect this time of year, and it makes a delicious contribution to any “Friendsgiving” buffet.
Autumn Squash and Chicken Casserole
Note: Look for a butternut squash with a long neck that’s on the thinner side. That’ll make cutting thin half-moon shapes a little easier. This casserole also keeps very well and is great when reheated, but it’s best to reheat in the oven rather than the microwave.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt, divided
- 1 1/2 pounds butternut squash, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch thick half moons
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried
- 1 1/2 pounds chicken breasts, sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch thick slices
- 2 Granny Smith apples peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, divided
- 8 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded
- 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1. Heat oven to 375 degrees with rack in middle position. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook until onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add squash and thyme to skillet. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until squash just begins to soften, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.
2. Toss apples with flour. Spray a 13 by 9-inch glass casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray, then spread apples in even layer in bottom. Spread chicken in even layer on top of apples, and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper, then spread half of cheese over chicken. Spread cooked squash mixture evenly over cheese.
3. Moisten panko bread crumbs with remaining 1 tablespoon oil, then combine with remaining cheese, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Spread evenly over squash mixture. Bake until chicken is cooked through, casserole is bubbling and topping is browned, about 45 minutes. Let cool 5 to 10 minutes before serving.