King Ranch Casserole
In our series Saving Southern Recipes, we explore the deep heritage of Southern cooking through the lens of passed-down family recipes.
If Texas were to have an official state casserole, it’d be the King Ranch casserole. Paying homage to traditional casseroles made from leftover chicken and condensed soups, the dish is set apart by its Tex-Mex flavors and flair. Easy, quick and comforting, this cheese-covered meal has become a staple in many Lone Star State homes and has spread throughout the entire South.
Because of its name, many attribute this dish to the 825,500-acre King Ranch in South Texas. This connection, however, has been debunked throughout the years. The ranch hasn’t laid claim to the dish and its legacy continues to be based in cattle, not the feathered friends you find in the casserole. Despite the origins being unknown, this Tex-Mex version of lasagna pops up in homes, church dinners, funerals and gatherings alike.
The basis of its comfort lies in the layers of cheese and creaminess. Despite its lack of varied textures (let’s be real — most casseroles are gloriously mushy), King Ranch casserole offers the bold flavors of chilis, cayenne and poblano, but it isn’t too spicy for kids. Corn tortillas provide structure and give the dish an authentic taste. Its mushiness is endearing and satisfying, perfect for a weeknight meal.
I cooked through a recipe adapted from The Lone Star Legacy Cookbook, the original 1981 cookbook of the Austin Junior Forum. A bestseller, this book and its recipe is well known around the state of Texas. For depth of flavor I swapped the bell pepper for poblano and added a small amount of cayenne. I also dialed back the broth amount by half to give the casserole the perfect level of creaminess.
Give King Ranch casserole a try … and don’t forget the Ro-Tel!
King Ranch Casserole
Note: You can use any leftover chicken you’ve got at home for this recipe, or you can purchase a fully-cooked rotisserie chicken and use its meat instead.
Hands-On Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: About 1 hour
2 tablespoons salted butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 1/2 poblano peppers, chopped (about 3/4 cup)
1 (10.5-ounce) can cream of chicken soup
1 (10.5-ounce) can cream of mushroom soup
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 (10-ounce) can Ro-Tel Original Diced Tomatoes and Green Chiles
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
12 (8-inch) corn tortillas
4 cups chopped, cooked chicken (see note)
8 ounces shredded medium cheddar cheese
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium high heat. Add the onion and poblano peppers and cook, stirring frequently, until browned and translucent, about 7 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine the soups, Ro-Tel, broth, chili powder, garlic powder, salt and cayenne. Stir to combine and season to taste with pepper.
Stack and cut the tortillas into four equal pieces. Quartered is best for round baking dishes; strips are best for rectangular or square dishes.
Evenly spread half of the chicken across the bottom of a 3-quart casserole dish. Top with half of the soup mixture, followed by half of the tortillas, then half of the onion mixture and, finally, half of the cheese. Repeat with the remaining ingredients in the same order.
Bake, covered, for 25 minutes. Remove the cover and continue baking until the cheese is browned and the casserole is bubbly, about 10 minutes. Let rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
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