King Ranch Casserole

My husband, Chef J, is from Texas. There are a few things that he grew up eating that weren’t a part of my childhood culinary experience. He ate a lot of chicken-fried steak with cream gravy, chili (NEVER with beans) and a Texas classic: King Ranch Casserole. This is, apparently, a staple at church suppers and family reunions. Allegedly named after the famed King Ranch, no one actually knows where the recipe originated but you can find it in a lot of Junior League and church cookbooks. It’s a Tex-Mex creamy blend of chicken, tortillas, chiles, mushrooms and cheese – a little like a chicken a’la king or turkey tetrazzini but decidedly more interesting.

Season both sides of chicken with lime juice, chile powder, salt and pepper. Cook on each side about 10 minutes or until fully cooked.
Season both sides of chicken with lime juice, chile powder, salt and pepper. Cook on each side about 10 minutes or until fully cooked.

Many recipes use canned cream of mushroom soup but, Holy Sodium Batman!, that crap  product doesn’t warrant a place in my cupboard. Let’s keep it real people! I make a very simple cream sauce with fresh ingredients that trumps the processed stuff. The Boy hates mushrooms so I have been known to leave them out. However, I do think it’s truer to the King Ranch idea to use the darn things. Leave them out if you must but I think it adds just a little bit of earthy body to this creamy, tangy, spicy, gooey mass of deliciousness.

Saute aromatic vegetables in same pot as chicken, scraping up the good brown bits. Add mushrooms and cook until liquid is evaporated. Add garlic, spices and flour and cook for another minute or two.
Saute aromatic vegetables in same pot as chicken, scraping up the good brown bits. Add mushrooms and cook until most of the liquid is evaporated. Add garlic, spices and flour and cook for another minute or two.

Now King Ranch Casserole doesn’t always look like much but, good lord, it’s so warm and comforting sometimes you just have to give in to the goo. In these photos, the portions are going to look WAY off and it’s because I doubled my usual recipe. Typically, this recipe will make a 9×13 casserole which is, frankly, enough to feed an army. Since I’ve doubled it here, I made three 8×8 casseroles – one for our dinner, one for our freezer, and one for a friend who has a new baby. It freezes great and is wonderful for delivering a meal to someone just home from the hospital or who has just moved. For Abby and Chris, I simply wrapped it up with instructions for baking on their own whenever they want it (or they can pop it in the freezer for later!). If you opt to freeze it, just take it out the night before to let it thaw in the fridge. While the oven is preheating, let it sit out on the counter to come a little closer to room temp. Otherwise it will take forEVER to bake from it’s ice-cold condition.

Add chicken stock to veggie mixture and stir until smooth. Stir in cream and RoTel. Simmer about fifteen minutes. Off heat, stir in cilantro, sour cream and lime juice.
Add chicken stock to veggie mixture and stir until smooth. Stir in cream and RoTel. Simmer about fifteen minutes. Off heat, stir in cilantro, sour cream and lime juice.

I generally serve this with a simple salad of crisp iceberg lettuce, pepitas (toasted pumpkin seeds), diced peppers, queso fresco and a lime vinaigrette.

Spray pan with non-stick cooking spray. Get together your sauce, tortillas, chicken and cheese. Add thin layer of sauce to pan, then add tortillas, chicken, sauce and cheese. Repeat. Finish with a layer of tortillas and top with cheese.
Spray pan with non-stick cooking spray. Get together your sauce, tortillas, chicken and cheese. Add thin layer of sauce to pan, then add tortillas, chicken, sauce and cheese. Repeat. Finish with a layer of tortillas and top with cheese.

King Ranch Casserole

  • 1 1/2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken (I use a combination of breasts and thighs)
  • juice of one lime, divided
  • 4 t ancho chile powder (or regular chile powder if you can’t get ancho), divided
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/4 C vegetable oil
  • 2 T unsalted butter
  • 1/2 large onion, diced
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 poblano or hatch chile, diced
  • 8 oz white mushrooms, cleaned and diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 T flour
  • 1 t cumin
  • 1/4 t cayenne (more if you like it a little spicier)
  • 1 C of chicken broth (have a little extra on standby in case sauce gets too thick)
  • 1 can diced tomatoes with chiles (I use mild Ro-Tel but you can use hot if you like), undrained
  • 1/2 C half and half or heavy cream
  • 1/2 C sour cream (plus more for serving)
  • 1/4 C chopped cilantro (plus more for serving)
  • 10 corn tortillas, steamed (see below)
  • 1 1/2 C shredded pepper jack (or regular jack if this is starting to sound too spicy for you)
  • 1 1/2 C shredded sharp cheddar 
  • non-stick cooking spray
  • Sliced black olives for garnish, optional

Season chicken with half of lime juice, half of chile powder and salt and pepper. Heat large skillet or dutch oven over medium heat and add 2 T vegetable oil. Cook chicken on both sides until done (about 10 minutes per side). Remove to a large bowl and allow to cool down a bit. Shred with two forks. Taste to see if it needs more salt and pepper. Set aside until ready to use.

While chicken is cooking, grate your cheese and combine both cheeses in a big bowl. Put it in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Heat remaining oil and the butter in a large saucepan or Dutch oven (I used the same pot) over medium heat. Cook onion and peppers until just translucent and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Add mushrooms and saute until most of the liquid has evaporated and mushrooms are starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and continue to cook about one minute. Add remaining chile powder, cumin, cayenne and flour and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Gradually pour in the chicken stock and stir until smooth. Simmer on medium low until mixture is thickened, about 3-5 minutes. Stir in cream and RoTel and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat and stir in sour cream, remaining lime juice and half of the cilantro. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.

Some recipes call for warming the tortillas in vegetable oil. I’ve tried that and, although it’s fine, I’ve found that it’s not totally necessary. I usually just steam my tortillas in the microwave. Just put a damp paper towel or two in the tortilla bag and microwave for about a minute, turning once, until nice and warm slightly moist. I usually cut mine in half so that they are easier to assemble in the dish. Other than the top layer, it’s not going to matter since no one will see them.

Preheat oven to 350*. Spray a 9×13 casserole with non-stick cooking spray. Ladle about 1/2 C of the sauce into bottom of your dish. Layer half of the tortillas in the bottom of dish, making sure to cover it thoroughly. You may have to tear some tortillas into smaller pieces to have it all covered. It’s all good. Add half the chicken, half of the remaining sauce, half of the remaining cilantro and about 1/3 of the cheese. Repeat layering. Finish with a final layer of just tortillas and cheese on top.

Cook, uncovered for 30-45 minutes or until brown and bubbly. Allow to rest for a few minutes before serving.

Garnish with additional sour cream, cilantro and black olives if desired.

*If freezing or saving for later, obviously don’t preheat your oven but do everything else. Cover tightly with foil and freeze or refrigerate. If heating from frozen, allow to thaw overnight in refrigerator. Preheat oven to 350 and bake for 30 minutes, covered. Remove foil and continue to cook for 20-25 minutes until brown and bubbly. Serve as above.

If baking from refrigerated, bake, covered for 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue to cook for 20-25 minutes or until brown and bubbly. And delicious.
If baking from refrigerated, bake, covered for 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue to cook for 20-25 minutes or until brown and bubbly. And delicious.
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