Wednesday March 27, 2013 | 01:00 AM

There’s an interesting regional recipe making the rounds in various cookbooks for a dish called King Ranch Chicken. It’s basically an enchilada casserole, but a special one that captures the essence of Tex-Mex cooking.

When I made it for the first time several months ago, I flipped for it.  All those easy to take ingredients like tomatillos, cilantro, corn tacos, chicken, jalapeno, cheese and southwestern spices are the basic components. 

It was apparently created many moons ago by a cook—maybe a ranch hand or herder-- at the King Ranch in Texas, the largest cattle farm in the country. 

Over the years the recipe has been corrupted by such shortcuts as Campbell’s soup substitutions for the real sauces and flavors.

I came across the recipe in two totally different cookbooks.  One was My Beveryly Hills Kitchen by TV personality Alex Hitz and the other from a much more interesting collection called Southern Comfort by Allison and Slade Vines-Rushing, two chefs and restaurateurs from Louisiana. 

While the Hitz version was good, the Vines-Rushing adaptation seemed more authentic –more like the old family recipe savored by generations of this the south.

This version does not resort to shortcuts.  It calls for a cream sauce enriched with green, red and jalapeno peppers.  The chicken component comes from poaching a chicken first for its meat and resultant stock that are needed for the dish. 

I’ve actually used leftover chicken from a large roast to use instead, and I generally have stock on hand so there’s no need to poach a chicken first.  Either way works.



The casserole is a rich and creamy baked enchillada dish 

The rest is based on building a casserole dish with layers of corn tortillas, the pepper-cream sauce, the chicken, shredded cheese, green onions and a final topping of the tomatillo salsa.  It’s baked until heated through and the cheese is melted, about 40 minutes.  At the end I like to pour the salsa over the casserole instead of on individual servings.   

With the tomatilla salsa spread on top

King Ranch Chicken
(Adapted from Southern Comfort, by Allison and Slade Vines-Rushing)

Poached chicken and stock
1 3-pound chicken
Or about 3 cups leftover roast chicken, diced large or shredded
1 onion, unpeeled
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
Salt and pepper

6 tomatillos, husked
1 small onion, quartered
6 cloves garlic
2 jalapeno chilies stemmed and seeded (see Note)
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 heaping tablespoon olive oil
Juice of 2 limes
1 bunch cilantro, leaves only

¼ cup unsalted butter
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 jalapeno pepper stemmed, seeded and chopped (see Note)
1 large onion, diced
1 large clove garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon chili powder
¼ cup all-purpose flour

3 to 4 cups chicken broth
¼ cup sour cream or crème fraiche

About ½ cup canola oil
12 corn tortillas
2 ½ cups shredded Jack or Cheddar cheese
1 bunch green onions, white and green parts, chopped

Poached chicken.  If using the meat from a poached chicken, put the chicken in a stock pot, add enough water to cover by 2 inches and bring to the simmer, skimming off the scum as it rises to the top.  Add the remaining stock ingredients and simmer, partially covered, until the chicken is done, about 1 hour.  Remove the chicken from the pot, strain the stock and reserve.  When cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the chicken and cut into large dice or shreds.  Set aside until ready to use. 

Salsa.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Meanwhile prepare the salsa by tossing the tomatillos, onion, garlic, chilies, salt, pepper and olive oil in a bowl until the vegetables are well coated.  Place the oiled vegetables on a baking sheet and roast in the oven for 30 minutes.  Remove from the oven and place the pan contents in a food processor with the lime juice and cilantro and pulse the mixture until you have a chunky salsa.  Reserve.

Sauce.  To make the sauce in a large sauté pan or medium size Dutch oven over medium-high heat, melt the butter and add the red, green and jalapeno peppers, onion, and garlic and cook the vegetables until they have softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the salt, paprika, cumin, black pepper, chili powder and flour, stirring to mix well and reduce the heat to low.  Cook for about 3 minutes.  Whisk in the sour cream until blended and add 3 1/2 cups reserved chicken stock and bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Simmer for 10 minutes and cook until it’s as thick as a cream soup.  If it’s too thick add some more stock. If it's too thin, mix some sauce with a tablespoon of flour and whisk until and simmer until thickened.  Reserve.

Tortillas.To soften the tortillas, pour about 3 tablespoons canola oil into a skillet and place over medium heat.  Once the oil is hot, dip the tortillas in the oil, one by one, until they are soft, turning from one side to the other or about 5 seconds each side. Add more oil if necessary until all the tortillas are used up.  Drain them on paper towels and put into the casserole as instructed below.

To assemble the casserole, butter a 9 by 13-inch casserole dish and build the casserole as follows: spreading each layer in the dish start by covering the bottom of the pan with 6 tortillas, overlapping is OK until the bottom is covered.  Then add half the chicken, then half the pepper- cream sauce, then half the cheese and half the green onions. Add the remaining ingredients for the second layer as you did before. Bake uncovered until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbly, about 40 minutes. 

Remove from the oven and spread the tomatillo salsa over the top and serve, cutting into squares.

Note: If you like the casserole with more heat, do not seed the chilies.




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John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.

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