Nothing whisks us back to the past like a warm casserole fresh from the oven. Before counting calorie and cholesterol became popular, these tasty concoctions showed up in kitchens, on picnic tables, at potlucks, in school lunch rooms, and even on restaurant menus.
Among the most popular of these one-dish meals was the original King Ranch Casserole, a Tex-Mex medley, that included chicken, Ro-tel, creamy soups (usually Campbell’s), corn tortillas, peppers, and cheese.
Tried and True Comfort Food
Many of the old time casseroles went the way of the dodo bird, but a few, like King Ranch, are still around today. My Rolla friends, Paul and Martha, found a speedy, reduced-fat, low-salt version of the vintage recipe and decided to give it a try. For added flavor, they poached the chicken and made broth in their Instapot. They even took a few photos, because they knew I’d be interested in the outcome of their stroll down memory lane.
The Missouri Connection
As it turns out, the King Ranch in South Texas has a remote connection to Rolla. Okay, stay with me here. This gets weird. Back in the early part of the last century, a student by the name of Vachel McNutt graduated from the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy in Rolla, (now known as MS&T). Vachel became a “wildcatter” out in New Mexico and famous for discovering the first potash deposits in the Western Hemisphere. It was akin to winning the lottery.
During the Roaring Twenties, Vachel bought the King Ranch in South Texas, the biggest ranch in the United States. At nearly 1300 square miles, the spread is larger than Rhode Island. This is the place that has its name attached to the old casserole that’s adored by so many families.
Opps! But Wait . . .
Now the connection breaks down. No one’s been able to establish a link between the recipe and the ranch! Nor does the ranch claim one. It appears to be a name that was slapped on the original recipe that came out of the 40s and 50s. Hmm. . . maybe the name was given the casserole, because, like the ranch, the dish is so spectacular and feeds so many. Just a guess.
Well, there you have it. Today there’s a Vachel McNutt geology building on the Rolla campus and, coincidentally, Paul and Martha have rehabbed the old casserole named for Vachel’s famous ranch. After you’ve finished connecting all those slippery dots, have yourself another helping of King Ranch casserole and a cold beer.
Quick King Ranch Chicken Casserole
- 1 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
- 1½ cups chopped yellow onion
- 1 cup chopped red bell pepper
- ¾ cup chopped poblano pepper
- 1 Tbs. finely chopped jalapeño
- 1 Tbs. minced garlic
- ½ tsp. ground cumin
- 2 Tbs. flour
- 1 cup unsalted chicken broth
- 2 oz. reduced-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
- 2 cups chopped cooked chicken breast
- 1 (10-oz.) can no-salt-added diced tomatoes with green chilies, drained, or Ro-Tel, drained
- 2 (6 inch) corn tortillas, torn into pieces
- ¼ tsp. salt
- ½ cup shredded Mexican-blend cheese
- 2 Tbs. chopped fresh cilantro
- Preheat broiler to high.
- Heat oil in a medium ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion, bell pepper, poblano and jalapeño; cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 7 to 9 minutes.
- Add garlic and cumin; cook, stirring constantly, about 1 minute.
- Sprinkle flour over the vegetables and cook, stirring constantly, until they are thoroughly coated, about 1 minute.
- Add broth and bring to a boil, stirring to combine. Cook, stirring, until slightly thickened, about 1 minute.
- Stir in cream cheese until melted. Stir in chicken, tomatoes, tortilla pieces and salt. Sprinkle evenly with cheese.
- Place the skillet under the broiler and broil until the cheese is melted and browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Sprinkle with cilantro.