I can predict, from personal experience talking to friends about King Ranch chicken, that about half of the viewers of this blog post aren’t even reading this paragraph; they’ve already skipped down to the recipe so they can tell me what I’m doing wrong. Those are mostly the Texans. Most everybody else — that is, those of you up here reading — are wondering “what in the heck is King Ranch chicken? Is it, like, some weird mashup of Chicken à la King with a packet of Hidden Valley Ranch seasoning?” (It isn’t, but now I really want to work with that idea…)
So, for you mostly-non-Texans, here’s the scoop: King Ranch chicken (or King Ranch casserole) is a popular Texas/Tex-Mex casserole made with cooked chicken, diced peppers, onions, and tomatoes, all in a creamy sauce that’s layered between corn tortillas. If you think of it as sort of a Southwestern lasagna, you’re in the ballpark. Its name comes from South Texas’s King Ranch, which — at 825,000 acres / 1,289 sq. mi. — is one of the largest ranches in the word. No one really seems to know why it’s called King Ranch chicken, though: even Robb Walsh, in Texas Eats, says that it has nothing to do with the Ranch, and for that matter, “no one knows who actually invented it, but the canned soups suggest that it originated not long after World War II.”
And here’s where the traditionalists are coming to get me, because it’s true: the usual recipes, the ones you’ll find in all the Junior League and community cookbooks, all use canned cream soups (usually cream of chicken and cream of mushroom or celery). And don’t get me wrong, they’re delicious, but that’s just not how I usually cook! So when I happened on a recipe by Eleanor Bradshaw over at Texas Cooking.com, almost a decade ago now, I was amazed: here was a recipe for King Ranch chicken that just built up a cream sauce from the bottom up! Everybody’s doing that sort of thing now — I’ve even posted a recipe or two like it here — but at the time I first read that recipe, I was amazed and excited.
And so, ungrateful soul that I am, of course I changed it more, because why go halfway? I’ve kept Ms. Bradshaw’s delicious buttermilk-and-chicken-broth sauce, which I wouldn’t dream of undoing. And I’ve mostly kept her fresh veggies, though in a nod to the dish’s origins (and in acknowledgement of the dearth of good tomatoes in April) I’ve swapped in Rotel tomatoes for some downhome Texas love. But the biggest changes here are structural; I’ve really thrown the proportions for a spin. King Ranch chicken is, like many midcentury casseroles, a bit of a messy gutbomb, so I’ve brought in an additional layer of tortillas to give it some structure, and I’ve cut back the cheese so you can taste all the different flavors instead of just tasting, well, cheese. The end result is a casserole that fits in with the kind of cooking that I like to do, while still giving all the warm feelings of Texas comfort food. Bon appetit, y’all.
King Ranch chicken, a little gussied up
Adapted from Eleanor Bradshaw’s “King Ranch Chicken” at Texas Cooking
King Ranch chicken is a Texas classic, but the original recipes tend to use canned cream-of-whatever soups, which I generally don’t have lying around. My version borrows its from-scratch spirit from Eleanor Bradshaw’s recipe, which was a wake-up call to me a good decade ago. Over the years I’ve changed the proportions to meet my tastes: less cheese and more tortillas, to let the flavors of the sauce and the vegetables shine through.
4 Tbsp. oil
1 lg. yellow onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 poblano pepper, seeded and diced
3 cl garlic, minced
4 Tbsp. flour
1 1/2 c chicken stock
1 1/2 c buttermilk
1 1/2 Tbsp chili powder
1 10 oz. can Rotel tomatoes
1/2 c cilantro, chopped
2 Tbsp lime juice
Salt to taste; about 1 tsp, but use your judgment
Approx. 4 c of cooked chicken, cubed or coarsely shredded
12 corn tortillas
8 oz. Colby or other mild cheddar cheese, shredded
Preheat the oven to 350°F, and get out a 9×13 baking dish.
In a large, deep skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat and saute the onion and peppers until they’ve softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for about a minute. Sprinkle the flour into the pan and stir to combine. Slowly add the chicken stock and the buttermilk, whisking the liquid into the flour and vegetables to make a smooth gravy.
Continue stirring the sauce until it comes near a boil and thickens. Add the chili powder, Rotel tomatoes, cilantro, lime juice, and salt, and stir to combine. Let return to a high simmer, then remove from heat and stir in the chicken.
Ladle a small amount of the chicken-and-vegetable sauce into the bottom of the baking dish and spread it around to make a thin layer (this helps the bottom tortillas not to stick). Use four of the tortillas to cover the bottom of the baking dish — this is often easier if you tear them in half and treat it like a jigsaw puzzle. Cover with about a third of the sauce and a third of the cheese. Repeat twice to use up the rest of the ingredients.
Bake for 30 minutes, until everything is hot and bubbly. Let stand for 10-15 minutes so it can set up, then serve.
More like tips, really: (1) Depending on the size of the bird, this is just about the amount of meat you can pick off a supermarket rotisserie chicken. You’re welcome. (2) Don’t keep buttermilk around? Neither do I. But I do always have a tin of buttermilk powder in my fridge. It’s like magic for baking, and it works perfectly here.
Rotel tomatoes: This is a mix of diced tomatoes and green chiles that is very common in Texan cooking. They’re distributed pretty widely now (though in the ’90s I remember Mom shipping them to her sister in Idaho), but if you can’t find them on your grocery store shelf many other companies make a similar product. Failing that (and assuming you don’t want to just buy them online), use about half a 15 oz. can of plain diced tomatoes and half a 4 oz. can of canned green chiles. If you can’t find green chiles, canned jalapeno slices could also work, but use your judgment on how many to use.
I first started working on this recipe in a vegetarian version, using seitan, so I can attest that you can certainly make that substitution. An extra-firm tofu would likely work as well, and though it’d be very untraditional, some beans would likely be effective — pintos, I think, would be best, or maybe black beans.