I confess that, even as the outdoor thermostat rises, I still crave casseroles; this week will be solidly in the 90s here in the Valley of the Sun, but for the past few days I haven’t been able to stop thinking about a certain cheesy, flavorful, bubbling casserole…
King Ranch Chicken (also known as King Ranch Casserole) is a Tex-Mex heirloom dish that has been around for almost as long as its namesake, although the recipe likely did not actually originate from King Ranch in Kingsville, Texas (King Ranch, one of the largest working ranches in the world, is, after all, known for its beef).
The truth is that no one knows for sure where the original recipe for King Ranch Chicken came from, but it most certainly gained traction in popular culture right around the middle of the twentieth century while canned and condensed soups were also quickly becoming mainstays in pantries throughout the United States. Which is probably why, lineage or no lineage, there is very little question about the ingredients that typically make up a traditional King Ranch Chicken Casserole: canned cream of mushroom soup, canned cream of chicken soup, canned Ro-Tel tomatoes, and canned roasted green chiles. Other ingredients are common -bell peppers, chicken, tortillas and cheese- but the cans stand out.
So I suppose, both in my abandonment of the can (I didn’t kick them all to the curb!), as well as my craving of the comfort-wielding casserole just as the mercury inches dangerously close to 100º F, I am committing some type of dual heresy.
But check back with me when I care!
This luscious ‘role was easily assembled on a Sunday and lovingly fed A. and I for a full week of dinners. It’s still a creamy, steamy pot of semi-indulgent goodness, but omitting the cream of- soups and replacing them with lightly sautéed leeks, garlic, and hearty crimini mushrooms amps up the flavor while cutting back quite a bit on the heavy.
I just love it.
And we’ll have come full circle when I’m craving salads and rice cakes as December rolls around. OK, maybe not…
King Ranch Chicken
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
1 large leek, ends removed, halved vertically and sliced horizontally
8 oz. brown baby bella crimini mushrooms, sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. black pepper, freshly ground
1 1/2 tsp. cumin, ground
1 tsp. coriander, ground
1/2 tsp. oregano, ground
1 c. all-purpose flour
4 c. unsalted chicken stock
1- 10 oz. can Ro-Tel
1- 7 oz. can fire-roasted mild green chiles
salt to taste
10 corn tortillas
meat from one whole cooked chicken (approximately 2 – 2 1/2 lbs.), shredded
1 1/2 c. Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
1 1/2 c. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
Preheat oven to 425°.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven. Add the leek, mushrooms and garlic, and sauté over a medium flame until fragrant and tender, approximately 8 minutes. Stir in the black pepper, cumin, coriander and oregano, and cook for 2 minutes more. Whisk in the flour, one quarter cup at a time, alternating with the stock, one cup at a time, whisking until smooth and uniform after each addition. Stir in the Ro-Tel and chiles and reduce heat to low.
To assemble the casserole, line the bottom of a 9″ x 13″ baking dish with a layer of overlapping tortillas. Top the tortillas with half of the vegetable sauce and then half of the chicken, and finish with one third of the cheese. Add an additional layer of overlapping tortillas, the remainder of the vegetable sauce, the remainder of the chicken and one third of the cheese, and complete the casserole by topping with any remaining tortillas and cheese. Note that you can switch up assembly by simply stirring all of the chicken and all of the vegetable sauce together into the baking dish, then finishing with a solid crust of all of the tortillas topped with all of the cheese; this method of assembly is certainly not traditional, but it is just as tasty.
Bake for 30 minutes or until the cheese is melted, exposed tortillas are crisped at their edges, and the filling is bubbly and fragrant. Remove and set aside for 5 minutes to cool slightly before serving.
YIELD: approximately 10 servings