A hugely popular casserole in Texas, this cheesy chicken and tortilla tuck-in is traditionally a child of convenience: richness from cans of cream of chicken and mushroom soups, spice from a can of green chili-laced Ro-Tel tomatoes, gooeyness from a package of shredded cheese. Favored by home cooks and Junior Leaguers since the 1950s, the comfort of King Ranch Casserole cannot be denied; even the ever-classy Lady Bird Johnson served the dish frequently at the Johnson ranch in Stonewall, Texas.
Element of distress
The level of Texan elegance in the original recipe might be a tall tale. The tortillas were soggy, the chicken was overcooked, and the sauce was made gloppy and bland by the undiluted canned soup.
Line of attack
Avoiding the dreaded cans of creamed soup while keeping the recipe still easy enough for any cowboy to cook up.
The sauce is the heart and soul of the dish. We’ll lose the gloppy canned soup but maintain a creamy consistency. Instead of draining (as most recipes instructed) the flavorful base of sauteed onions, chiles, ground cumin and Texas’ famous Ro-Tel tomatoes, we reduced the liquid to intensify the tomato flavor. Then we stirred in flour for thickening, cream for richness, and chicken broth for flavor. Twenty minutes in the kitchen yielded a silky, flavorful sauce that put canned soup to shame.
Next? The perils of casserole assembly. Layering the sauce with corn tortillas and cooked chicken, then topping it with cheese before baking, resulted in leathery chicken and disintegrating tortillas. Where’s that lasso when you need it? Because this situation needed to be seriously tamed.
Since an attempt with raw chicken didn’t get cooked through, the solution was to partially poach the chicken in the sauce before assembling the casserole, which guaranteed perfectly cooked, well-seasoned meat. As for our soggy corn tortillas? Crisping them in the oven (in effect, making homemade chips) kept them from turning to mush in the casserole and cut out the greasiness of commercial tortilla chips. Two clever pre-baking steps put sad, mangled layers of chicken and tortillas to rest.
Final frontier: a crisp topping. A layer of crushed corn chips seemed like a no-brainer, and after trying different brands, Fritos won out. (Fun fact: The original Fritos recipe originated from a 1932 incident in a San Antonio café.) Fritos crowned this Texas classic with just the right amount of saltiness, corn flavor, and crunch.
Although we certainly aren’t convenience-food snobs (Fritos are hardly the pinnacle of from-scratch cooking), we successfully weaned ourselves away from the distressing canned cream soups and created a tasty tribute to this Lone Star rockstar.