We have gone to Colorado to visit my sister-in-law who is recovering from a hospital stay. Since she grew up in Texas, we thought some easy-to-eat Texas comfort food would welcome her back home.
If you have ever lived in Texas, you have probably eaten King Ranch Chicken. If you have never lived in Texas, it’s likely you have not even heard of the dish. King Ranch Chicken is served at Texas weddings, funerals, conferences, and of course women’s luncheons. It has even been suggested that the Texas State Legislature should designate KRC as the official State Casserole. A major function of the legislature seems to be to recognize the official state bird, fish, tree, etc. Some wags would suggest that that is the most important thing they do.
In spite of all this fame, it is unknown how KRC got its name. One thing seems certain: it was not invented on the legendary King Ranch in Far South Texas. That assertion has been steadfastly denied by the wife of one of the past owners. A more likely explanation seems to me to be that it was invented and named by a home cook in the 1940s or 1950s during the heyday of The Joy of Cooking and Betty Crocker when a can of condensed soup was the key to elegance. Perhaps the inventor developed the recipe for her local Junior League cookbook. Versions of the recipe are certainly legion in all sorts of community cookbooks.
The first time I remember eating KRC was at a noon conference for students at a West Texas university many years ago. I don’t recall the topic of the conference, but I do remember that not a speck of the KRC remained. I also remember that it was tasty, gooey, and a little bit spicy.
There are probably as many recipes for KRC as there are Texas home cooks, but there are six key components: chicken of course, corn tortillas (though recent recipes substitute Doritos – a heresy as far as I’m concerned), cheese (some recipes swear by Velveeta), canned cream of mushroom soup, canned cream of chicken soup, and Ro*Tel. If you absolutely can’t stand the thought of canned soup, you can substitute your own homemade béchamel, but then your KRC would not be completely authentic.
Ro*Tel is another Texas invention. It was created during the 1930s in a small town near the Texas-Mexico border and not far from the King Ranch. It is a secret mix of tomatoes, green chiles, and spices. It is a key ingredient of queso dip and for years was only available in Texas. The tiny company was eventually sold to Con Agra, so now Ro*Tel should be available in every grocery store.
This version of the recipe includes two other ingredients that are not always in the recipe, but in my opinion they are both essential to Tex-Mex cooking: Mexican oregano and ground cumin. If you are not accustomed to their flavors you may find them objectionable. In that case, leave then out. Mexican oregano is different from Mediterranean oregano, and the best comes as leaves, stems, and flowers that you crush between the palms of your hands,
Some folks think KRC is too mushy. If you worry about that, cut back on the liquid. One of the beauties of KRC is that you can make the recipe your own. Then you will enjoy widespread fame throughout your neighborhood.
King Ranch Chicken
- 1 whole chicken
- 18 day-old corn tortillas
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 6 crimini mushrooms, torn into pieces
- 10.5 ounce can condensed cream of mushroom soup
- 10.5 ounce can condensed cream of chicken soup
- 1 can Ro*Tel
- 4 ounces canned chopped green chiles
- 1 cup chicken stock (optional)
- 2 tablespoons Mexican oregano, crushed
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- salt and pepper
- 4 ounces Cheddar cheese, grated
- 4 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, grated
- sour cream
- green bell pepper, seeded and sliced into rounds (optional)
- red bell pepper, seeded and sliced into rounds (optional)
- In a large pot, cover the chicken with salted water and bring to the boil. Cook at a low boil for 45 minutes or until the chicken is completely cooked. Cool until it is easy to handle. Then remove the skin, bones, fat, and any gristle. Cut the chicken meat into bite-sized pieces or shred with two forks. Set aside.
- Toast the tortillas for 15-20 seconds on both sides in a dry, hot skillet. Cut the heated tortillas in half and set aside.
- In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and stir for a few minutes until translucent. Then stir in the mushroom pieces and continue to cook until the mushrooms are heated through and well-cooked. Stir in the mushroom soup, chicken soup,, Ro*Tel, green chiles, optional chicken stock, oregano, and cumin. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Stir well and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside for assembly of the casserole.
- Prepare a 9″ x 13″ x 4″ glass baking dish by spraying the inside with baking spray. Ladle a scant half cup of the soup mixture into the baking dish and spread across the bottom of the dish. Arrange 12 tortilla halves to completely cover the bottom of the dish.
- Arrange about half of the cut-up chicken to cover the tortillas. Then top with a little less than half of the soup mixture. Top with about one-third of the grated cheeses.
- Arrange another layer of tortilla halves, topped with the remaining chicken and more soup mixture, reserving about 3/4 cup for the top, and half the remaining cheeses. Dot with teaspoonfuls of sour cream.
- Arrange a final layer of tortilla halves. Top with the remaining soup mixture and cheeses.
- Decorate if desired with the optional bell pepper rings.
- Bake for one hour in the middle of an oven preheated to 350ºF, until the top is well-browned and bubbling. Remove from the oven, cool for 5 minutes, and serve immediately.