That is King Ranch Chicken Casserole. And it’s Texas’ contribution to the category of amorphous, 50-Shades-of-Brown, one-dish comfort foods that taste far, far better than they look.
But I’m not doing it justice.
To describe King Ranch Chicken a little more favorably – and in a manner totally worthy of that warm bowl of comfort that’s perfect for a chilly Texas fall night – think of it as a cross between a TexMex lasagna that’s made with tortillas rather than pasta and a chicken pot pie that’s lighter on the vegetables and sports a topping of corn tortillas and golden brown and bubbly cheese rather than a flakey pie crust.
Absent in this casserole are the much-maligned cream-of soups. If you want to use them, you can. But making the homemade cream-of soup that serves as the base for King Ranch Chicken is only slightly more work than cranking open a couple of cans with a manual opener. And you get to take a pass on all those 15-letter ingredients and the extra sodium.
Present in this casserole is a generous dose of green chiles for mild warmth and a mountain of shredded cheese to contribute to that oozy, melty, and magical amorphous blob.
Did I do it justice that time? Good. Now get out your grocery list and let’s get to work.
Put it on your menu for a stretch of cold nights this winter when your schedule would high-five your for 2 nights of scoop-and-reheat leftovers. Put it on your menu for a week when store-roasted rotisseries go on sale. Put it on your menu to crush those Thanksgiving dark-meat turkey leftovers.
Either way. You’re gonna want to put it on your menu soon.
King Ranch Chicken Casserole
The ultimate in Texas comfort food, this casserole is made with homemade cream of chicken sauce and corn tortillas.
- For the chicken:
- 2.5-3 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs and/or breasts (or the meat from 1 precooked rotisserie chicken)
- Olive oil
- For the cream sauce:
- 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
- 1 large white or yellow onion, diced
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tsp chile powder
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1 cup flour
- 3 1/2 cups chicken stock, divided
- 1/2 cup cream (I use fat-free greek yogurt instead)
- 10 oz can of Rotel tomatoes
- 4 oz can of green or hatch chiles, drained
- For the casserole
- 24 corn tortillas
- 2 cups shredded cheese (I used a mix of white and yellow cheddars and monterrey jack)
- If cooking your own chicken, preheat oven to 425. (If not, you just shaved 30 minutes off dinner prep!)
- Drizzle the chicken with olive oil, salt, and pepper (or your favorite general seasoning).
- Divide it into 2-3 foil pouches and bake for 20-25 minutes.
- Let sit for 5 minutes before shredding.
- While the chicken is cooking, make the cream sauce and reduce the oven to 350.
- Melt the butter in a large sauce pan or pot over medium-high heat.
- Cook the onion, bell pepper, and garlic for ~10 minutes, until softened and there's no standing liquid left.
- Stir in the chili powder, red pepper, cumin, salt, and black pepper.
- Add the flour in 2 batches, stirring until all traces of white are gone.
- Add 3 cups of the chicken stock to the pot, 1 cup at a time, whisking until smooth.
- Whisk in the cream (or yogurt), and add the Rotel (do not drain it first) and the peppers.
- Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.
- Reserve 1 cup of cream sauce before adding the chicken to the pot.
- Lightly oil the bottom and a 13x9 baking dish and place the remaining 1/2 cup chicken stock into a bowl wide enough to hold the tortillas.
- Dip the tortillas into the stock (I did stacks of 4 at a time) and line the bottom of the baking dish so that the tortillas are 2 wide and 4 long.
- Pour half of the chicken mixture into the baking dish and top with 1/3 of the cheese.
- Add another layer of dipped-tortillas in the same manner, lightly pressing on them to level the contents of the pan.
- Top with the remaining chicken mixture and 1/3 of the cheese.
- Add the final layer of dipped-tortillas and press on them to level out the dish.
- Spread the reserved cream sauce over the tortillas and top with the remaining cheese.
- Bake for 45 minutes, until bubbly and the top of the casserole is golden brown.
- Let sit 10-15 minutes to firm up before cutting into 12-squares and serving.
Yields: 12 servings