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Having a well-stocked pantry has many benefits, since a couple of special ingredients can be all you need to transform a simple weeknight meal into a complex and flavorful dish. There is, however, a dark side to always having the goods to make mole poblano or papri chaat at the drop of a hat. Our closet has become a refuge for several varieties of rice and dried chilies, while the sock drawer is stuffed with spices, leaving clothes to lurk in every dark corner of the apartment. When you’re married to someone who also works in food, there’s no voice of reason telling you not to buy a five-pound bag of black cocoa. But hey, at least we eat well. This braised chicken dish utilizes two staples that my kitchen is never without: ají amarillo paste, a fruity Peruvian chili paste that my husband’s grandmother mails us by the case, and canned coconut milk.
Ají amarillo is a bright orange chili native to Peru that tastes as radiant as it looks. Former Serious Eats editor Max Falkowitz described it best when he said, "If there were a chili to taste like sunshine, this would be it." In terms of heat, it’s about as spicy as cayenne pepper, but it doesn’t seem nearly as fiery, thanks to plenty of fruity and floral notes to balance out the heat. Unlike the grassy, stinging aroma of jalapeños or Thai chilies, ají amarillo smells round and full, with notes of tropical fruit. It’s ubiquitous throughout Peru and much of South America in dishes such as papas a la huancaína (potatoes smothered in a sauce of ají amarillo and queso fresco) and ají de gallina (shredded chicken in a rich sauce of ají amarillo, walnuts, cheese, and milk).
If you're not lucky enough to regularly receive chili pepper care packages from a Bolivian grandmother, ají amarillo is readily available from Peruvian and Mexican grocery stores, as well as online. It’s sold in several forms, from frozen to dried or—my favorite—as a paste. Ají amarillo paste can easily be stirred into sauces, tossed with roasted vegetables, or served with eggs for a change of pace from Tabasco.
Coconut and ají amarillo often find themselves together in ceviche, but in the dead of winter, this combination also makes for a rich and cheerful-looking braise. The technique I use for it is exactly like the one Kenji outlines for crispy and tender chicken thighs, made just a little bit saucier with the addition of coconut milk.
I start by seasoning bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs with kosher salt. Whenever I’m trying to highlight a particular chili, I abstain from using black pepper, so that the two peppers don’t compete for piquant dominance. I then sear the thighs, skin side first, in a hot Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot. If you’ve got coconut oil on hand, this is a great opportunity to double down on that tropical flavor, but any neutral oil works well, too.
After searing the chicken, I remove it from the pan and drain off any excess fat before adding the onion and garlic, cooking until both are wilted and tender. Then I add coconut milk and the star attraction, the ají amarillo paste. I like to use a generous half cup of the pepper paste for a particularly fierce flavor, but feel free to adjust to your taste. Just keep in mind that the heat will significantly mellow as everything stews together.
Don’t fret if you can’t find ají amarillo paste: Coconut milk is the perfect canvas for all kinds of chili spice, so this recipe will work just as well to highlight any other pepper or chili paste you have, allowing you to finally finish off that can of chipotles that’s been languishing in the back of your fridge.
Next, I add sweet butternut squash to the coconut and ají amarillo base, then return the chicken thighs to the pan. The squash gives the thighs a raft to float on, so the skin stays crisp as the chicken braises in the sauce. Hearty winter squash and root vegetables pair notably well with ají amarillo, balancing the chili's high notes.
I cook it all in the oven, uncovered, until the chicken has cooked through, the butternut has become creamy and tender, and the sauce has reduced slightly. I like to complete the dish with a handful of peas and roughly chopped cilantro, for more pops of sweetness and a fresh finish. I serve the chicken with ladlefuls of the emerald-speckled sauce and fluffy boiled yuca on the side to sop up every sunny drop.
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