Joni Woolf — King Ranch Casserole: a go-to for feeding crowds

Published 2:00 pm Monday, February 29, 2016

EDITOR’S NOTE: Joni Woolf is out of town  but her daughter Carey Wooten, also an excellent cook and foodie, is pinch-hitting for her this week.

In cooking, shortcuts, substitutes, and fillers work kind of like they do in the rest of life: they fool people who don’t really care, and, in the end, are not worth the time or money they may save. Worse, they take away from the quality of the entire cooking and dining experience. Fresh ingredients taste better. Recipes with many steps have them for a good reason. If you really care about the people you’re feeding, money spent on fresh ingredients is well-spent, as is the time you invest in preparation of a meal. Such is the case with the ever-popular King Ranch Casserole, a popular “go-to” for feeding crowds. It has been a popular casserole for families, for entertaining guests, or for taking to s potluck dinner for years. It is classic Tex-Mex dish — big like Texas and flavored with commonly used Mexican spices. One recipe will feed a family of five a couple of times, or it can be part of a buffet and feed 20 or more. It has many variations. Most of the modern recipes include cans of cream of chicken and cream of mushroom soup, canned chicken, shredded cheese, flour tortillas, and other easy-to use, processed, or packaged ingredients — and are relatively forgettable. It can be thrown together and baked inside an hour — if you’re in a hurry or don’t care about freshness or flavor. However, if you are willing to invest the time, along with fresh ingredients, your King Ranch can be delicious and unforgettable.
The January issue of Southern Living has one of the best recipes for King Ranch I’ve come across in a long time. I made it recently, with only a couple of modifications. The recipe follows, as printed, with my comments/revisions in italics:
6 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onion
1 cup chopped red bell pepper
1 cup chopped poblano peppers (about 2 medium peppers)
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 (10-oz.) can diced tomatoes with green chiles, drained
1 1/2 cups sour cream
2 pounds coarsely chopped smoked chicken (about 5 cups)
I baked 4 chicken breasts, basted with olive oil, seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, and lime
1 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
2 cups (8 oz.) shredded Monterey Jack cheese
2 cups (8 oz.) shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
18  (8-inch) soft taco-size corn tortillas
Corn, rather than flour tortillas are so much tastier; and yes, it takes 18!
1/4 cup  canola oil
Vegetable cooking spray
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and next 3 ingredients; cook, stirring occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes or until softened and lightly browned. Stir in garlic, chili powder, cumin, salt, and black pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, 1 minute.
2. Sprinkle flour over vegetable mixture, and cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute. Whisk in broth, and increase heat to high. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil, stirring occasionally, 1 to 2 minutes or until thickened. Remove from heat. Stir in tomatoes and sour cream.
3. Stir together chicken and cilantro in a large bowl; stir in vegetable mixture. Combine both cheeses in a small bowl.
4. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over high heat. Lightly brush each tortilla on both sides with oil. Cook tortillas, in batches, in hot skillet 1 to 2 minutes each side or until lightly browned and crisp on both sides. This is an important, often omitted step; this adds flavor and keeps the tortillas from absorbing all the liquid in the casserole.
5. Line bottom of a lightly greased (with cooking spray) 13- x 9-inch baking dish with 6 tortillas, overlapping slightly, to cover bottom of dish. Top with half of chicken mixture and one-third of cheese. Repeat layers once. Top with remaining tortillas and cheese. Lightly coat a sheet of aluminum foil with cooking spray, and cover baking dish.
6. Bake at 375 degrees F. for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake 10 minutes or until bubbly and lightly browned on top. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
Serve with lime wedges, fresh cilantro, and your favorite hot sauce!  Enjoy!