King Ranch Chicken: if you know, oh do you know! What many of us don’t know, however, is what lurks beneath that bubbling, cheesy top layer of a King Ranch Chicken Casserole. Let me tell you- from a health standpoint, it’s not pretty! Most recipes for this dish call for an obscene amount of oil, processed cheese, and gloopy cream of condensed soups. Yuck! I was so sad to learn that my one of my favorite casseroles ever was laden with such odious gunk. After searching far and wide for a cleaner King Ranch recipe to no avail, I’ve taken matters into my own hands and come up with this fresher version. It’s just as comforting and delicious as the greasy, processed casserole that I grew up eating, but it’s so much lighter and better for you! I also love that this dish can be made ahead, baked in the same oven proof pan used to cook with (if desired), and frozen with ease. It’s also a great potluck option to bring to friends or relatives this holiday season. Win win win!
I like to start this process by toasting corn tortillas in batches on a large baking sheet- I spritz them with some cooking oil and bake them until they are slightly dehydrated and a little less pliable. This step ensures that the tortillas won’t turn to mush in the casserole and disappear into the sauce. It’s the same idea as lightly frying tortillas before making enchiladas, but it all happens on a sheet pan with a lot less oil! Then, I make a simple roux to thicken the sauce base INSTEAD of god forsaken canned cream of mushroom soup. Off the heat, sour cream (or Greek yogurt) and a smidge or cream cheese amplify the creaminess factor. Velveeta who? I use a blend of grated sharp cheddar and jack as my cheeses of choice. Grating by hand makes a big difference in meltiness: pre-grated cheese is usually coated with some sort of powder that prevents it from getting super ooey gooey. Feel free to make this dish as spicy as you like- throw in a whole jalapeño, use a more fiery chili powder, or sub in hot Rotel. I like the keep it mild so that my boys will eat it, then I pile lots of salsa and pickled jalapeños on top so that Momma’s spice tooth is satisfied. The king of the casseroles is sitting a little lighter on it’s throne thanks to a few smart and simple swaps! Try it soon!
prep time: 30 min. cook time: ~30 min. serves: ~8
10 standard size corn tortillas
vegetable cooking spray
2 tbsp avocado or vegetable oil
2 tbsp butter
1/2 onion, diced
1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1/2 yellow or orange bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 poblano pepper, seeded and diced
1-1/2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 tbsp garlic, minced (3-4 cloves)
1 jalapeño, seeded and minced (optional)
2 tsp chili powder
2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp smoked sweet paprika
2 tbsp flour 1-10 oz can of diced tomatoes with green chilis, such as Rotel
1-1/2 to 2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup sour cream or plain Greek yogurt
2 oz cream cheese
1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves and stems, plus more for garnish
1 cup shredded Monterrey jack cheese
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
3 cups cooked chicken, shredded
prepared salsa, pickled jalapeño slices, avocado slices, sour cream, and/or more cilantro
Preheat the oven to 400°. Lightly coat a large sheet pan with cooking oil. Lay 1/2 the tortillas on the sheet pan and spray the tops with more oil. Toast the first batch of tortillas in the hot oven for 5 minutes. Flip and toast the other side another 2-3 minutes more, until the tortillas are just a little dried out but still slightly pliable (not crispy). Remove the toasted tortillas to a plate and repeat with the second batch. When they are cool enough to handle, tear the tortillas into quarters and set aside. Lower the oven temperature to 375°.
Heat the butter and oil a large, deep skillet. Add the onion to sweat 3 minutes, until it’s beginning to soften. Add the mushrooms, bell peppers, and poblano and sauté 5 minutes more. Stir in the spices, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper, garlic, and jalapeño (if using) and cook another minute or two to toast.
Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and spices and stir to evenly coat. Cook the mixture 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Pour in 1-1/2 cups stock and the tomatoes, season with another tsp of salt, and give everything a big stir. Let the mixture simmer uncovered for 5 minutes until it has thickened, check for seasoning (it may need a pinch more salt), and add 1/2 cup more stock if it seems too thick. Remove the pan from the heat.
Off the heat, add the cream cheese, sour cream, 1/2 cup jack cheese, 1/2 cup cheddar cheese, and the cilantro and stir until everything is melted and fully incorporated. Fold in the shredded chicken and tortilla quarters and mix to evenly coat in the sauce.
Transfer the king ranch mixture into a large greased baking dish, spreading it out in an even layer edge to edge. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top and cover tightly with foil. Pop into the oven to bake 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake another 10-15 minutes, until the casserole is bubbling and the cheese is melted and beginning to brown. Let the dish stand 10 minutes before serving with desired garnishes on top!
*note: this can also be baked in the same pan used to cook as long as it’s large enough and oven safe! The casserole can be prepared as written, wrapped tightly then frozen before baking. To cook from frozen, thaw the dish in the fridge overnight and proceed with baking, adding 10-15 more minutes of cooking time as needed.