King Ranch Chicken is a Texas staple consisting of layers of chicken, corn tortillas, and a semi-spicy cream sauce. The classic recipe relies heavily on canned cream-of-something soups. Today, bloggers remember this casserole much more fondly than in the 1980’s when Texas Monthly described it as “bland – but there when you need it.” The recipe remains largely unchanged, although there is increasing number of cooks who omit the cream soups to make the sauce from scratch.
One of my goals as a future Registered Dietitian is to recreate some of the state’s most beloved dishes to be a little healthier. And today it is time King Ranch Chicken gets an update. Hopefully, this addition is not as controversial as adding peas to guacamole. If you have ever driven across the famous King Ranch you will see this ingredient scattered across the landscape – I’m talking about cactus paddles also known as nopales.
Nopales have long been used in traditional Mexican medicine. The cactus are a good source of potassium, fiber and phytochemicals. Nopales are also being investigated for their impact at lowering blood sugar and possible liver protecting properties.
You can prepare nopales from the whole cactus paddle, complete with removing the spines, or purchase them from your local grocer sliced and ready-to-eat. I picked up this bag of noplaes in the refrigerated produce section at HEB for around two dollars. If you are feeling adventurous this link has detailed instructions for cleaning and preparing nopales.
Nopales fit right into the casserole, like they were always meant to be there, adding a bit of crunch and a hint of tanginess. I like to think the addition of cactus actually adds a bit of authenticity to this recipe that has such a mysterious origin.
- • 2 tbsp Butter
- • 2 tbsp Oil (Grapeseed, Canola etc.)
- • 1 Onion, diced
- • 1 Green Bell Pepper, diced
- • 1 Jalapeno, diced
- • 1 cup Nopales, wash and sliced
- • 2 tsp Minced Garlic
- • ¾ cup All-Purpose Flour
- • 3 cups Water
- • 1 tbsp Chicken Bouillon
- • 1 cup 2% Milk
- • ½ tsp Salt
- • 1 tsp Pepper
- • 1 tsp Chili Powder
- • 2 cups Shredded Chicken
- • 24 Corn Tortillas
- • 2 cups Shredded Cheddar Cheese
- Preheat oven to 350F. Spray 9" X 13” casserole dish with non-stick spray.
- Heat butter and oil in Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion, bell pepper, jalapeno, cactus, garlic and cook for 7-10 minutes or until tender.
- Stir in flour to vegetable mixture. Add water, chicken bouillon, and milk. Cook on medium-high heat until sauce is thickened, stirring occasionally. Whisk in spices.
- Layer 6 corn tortillas on bottom of casserole dish, top with one-third of sauce, one-third of chicken, and one-third of cheese. Repeat layering two more times. (Should have 3 layers)
- Top with corn tortillas and remaining shredded cheese.
- Bake at 350F for approximately 30 minutes or until casserole is bubbly and cheese is melted.
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