Why It Works
- Bright and fruity ají amarillo paste brings both heat and acidity to this rich braise.
- Slightly sweet and fatty coconut milk balances the chile's heat.
- Searing the chicken on the stove first gives you crispy skin, while finishing in the oven makes the thighs fall-apart tender.
- Bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs offer up more flavor to the dish.
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 chiles, 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 chile paste that my husband’s grandmother mails us by the case, and canned coconut milk.
Ají amarillo is a bright orange chile 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 chile 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 chiles, 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 chile 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 chile, 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 chile spices, so this recipe will work just as well to highlight any other pepper or chile 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 chile'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 emerald-speckled sauce and fluffy boiled yuca on the side to sop up every sunny drop.
2 tablespoons (30ml) coconut oil or any neutral-flavored oil
4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (about 30 ounces; 800g)
Kosher salt, to taste
1/2 large yellow onion (7 ounces; 200g), sliced
4 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 (13.6-ounce; 400ml) can coconut milk
1/4 to 1/2 cup (60 to 120ml) ají amarillo paste (see notes)
1/2 small butternut squash (1 1/4 pounds; 600g), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch-thick slices
3/4 cup fresh or frozen peas (3 1/2 ounces; 100g)
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems (1 ounce; 30g), roughly chopped
Cooked rice or boiled yuca, for serving
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C) and adjust rack to lower-middle position. Add coconut oil to a 6-quart Dutch oven or similar heavy-bottomed, oven-safe pot and heat over medium-high heat until oil shimmers. Season chicken thighs with salt and sear, skin side down, until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Flip chicken and sear on other side until browned, about 4 minutes longer. Transfer chicken to a plate and set aside. Drain any excess fat from pot and lower heat to medium.
Add sliced onion and minced garlic to pot and cook, scraping up any browned bits from the chicken, until translucent and tender, about 5 minutes.
Increase heat to high, then add coconut milk, ají amarillo, and squash and bring to a simmer. Season with salt. Return chicken to pot along with any accumulated juices, resting it skin side up on top of squash so that skin remains above the surface of the liquid.
Transfer pot to oven and bake, uncovered, until chicken is cooked through and squash is tender, about 45 minutes.
Remove from oven and stir in peas and cilantro. Serve right away with rice or boiled yuca.
Ají amarillo can be found in Peruvian and Mexican grocery stores, as well as online. Adjust the amount of chile paste in this dish based on your taste, keeping in mind that the heat will mellow out after cooking. If you cannot find ají amarillo, any other chile paste will also work well.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 38g||48%|
|Saturated Fat 22g||109%|
|Total Carbohydrate 30g||11%|
|Dietary Fiber 8g||28%|
|Total Sugars 7g|
|Vitamin C 50mg||248%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|