When Sandy Pollock and Crystal Cook go to work on a traditional recipe, they usually like to bring it up to date with a modern twist or two. After all, they call themselves the Casserole Queens, specialists in making a classic quick-fix dish fit for today's dinner mat.
But when it came to changing the King Ranch Casserole, Sandy wouldn't hear of it. "There are just some things that you don't mess with," she says. "It's the way Mama made it!"
The recipe embodies the taste of South Texas, where Sandy grew up. "Beautiful South Texas flavors," she says, "great Tex-Mex — nice and spicy, cheesy, gooey, yummy warmness."
Just don't ask them how the recipe came to be. "The history of it is a little murky," Sandy admits. "Nobody really knows 100 percent where it came from."
At first glimpse, it appears the name comes from one of the largest ranches in the world, King Ranch in Kingsville, Texas. But it's not that simple: King Ranch is known for its beef, while King Ranch Casserole features chicken.
This has led to some awkward situations. According to Crystal, the ranch owner's wife used to cringe when offered the dish as a tribute. "Her heart would drop every time some well-meaning hostess would come to her house and present King Ranch Casserole to her, because they didn't have anything to do with it."
The history of the King Ranch Casserole doesn't matter to Sandy. "I'm just glad it exists. I don't care what the history is as long as it's in my belly."
As for the changes to the casserole that Crystal had proposed? She backed down in the face of Sandy's enthusiasm for the original recipe. She has learned to appreciate it, canned soups and all. Crystal tells Sandy, "Your love for it has made me love it."
Recipe: Traditional King Ranch Casserole
1 (10 3/4-ounce) can cream of chicken soup
1 (10 3/4-ounce) can cream of mushroom soup
1 cup chicken broth
1 (10-ounce) can of Ro-Tel tomatoes
1 teaspoon garlic salt
12 (8-inch) corn tortillas cut into quarters
1 (3-pound) roasted chicken, boned and shredded
1 medium onion, diced
2 cups store-bought grated Mexican-blend cheese (8 ounces)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
In a large saucepan set over medium-high heat, combine the cream of chicken soup, cream of mushroom soup, chicken broth, tomatoes and garlic salt. Stir until warm, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with cooking spray. Put half of the tortillas in the bottom of the pan, layering half each of the chicken and onion, then sprinkle with one-third of the cheese mix. Pour half of the soup mixture over the top, and then repeat the layers. Top the casserole with the remaining third of the cheese.
Bake for 45 minutes or until the cheese has melted and browned slightly.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now to our Found Recipes series and again we're getting real and going retro. Last week, we were all about the crock pot and this week: casserole.
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BLOCK: Today, we have help from a pair of queens out of Austin, Texas.
SANDY POLLOCK: Hi, I'm Sandy Pollock.
CRYSTAL COOK: And I'm Crystal Cook.
POLLOCK: And we're the casserole queens.
COOK: And we're the casserole queens.
POLLOCK: I am often surprised that casseroles are not more embraced.
COOK: And we're just proud to be sort of the spokespeople for bringing back the 9X13.
BLOCK: Why? Because casseroles are delicious and easy. Plus, the 9X13 baking dish can feed a hungry herd, especially if it's a King Ranch Casserole, with chicken, tortillas and cheese.
POLLOCK: Beautiful South Texas flavors, great Tex-Mex, nice and spicy, cheesy, gooey, yummy warmness.
BLOCK: The taste of her childhood. As an adult, Sandy Pollock is a bonified ambassador for this Texas dish.
POLLOCK: King Ranch Casserole, high, proud and loud, baby girl. Whoo.
BLOCK: Her business partner, Crystal Cook, she's not feeling it. She's from Georgia. She wanted to update Sandy's family recipe with a modern spin, but she quickly learned why they say don't mess with Texas.
COOK: When Sandy introduced this casserole to me, it kind of got all the negative connotations that we try to fight as casserole queens every day. It's got not one, but two cans...
COOK: ...of cream of something in them so I went to go change the way this King Ranch Casserole was developed, but Sandy, like, came in...
POLLOCK: Put the ix-nay on that buddy.
COOK: Yeah, fast.
POLLOCK: There's just some things that you just don't mess with, you know, and this was something that I have such specific memories about this dish as a kid that it just...
COOK: It's just the way your momma made it.
POLLOCK: It's the way momma made it. Thank you, Momma. Essentially, it is like all the flavors of South Texas. It's got Mexican cheeses. It's got Ro-Tel tomatoes, which are, you know, a mixture of tomato and green chiles and it's nice and it's got a kick and it's got - yeah, so it's got the two cans of cream soups in there, but they really just mellow everything out and some corn tortillas.
It's essentially like maybe a Mexican lasagna or, like, a deconstructed sort of enchilada plate.
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POLLOCK: The King Ranch Casserole, the history of it is a little murky. Nobody really knows 100 percent where it came from.
COOK: I would say it's iffy at best.
POLLOCK: Iffy at best. But the name comes from a ranch. It's the biggest ranch - one of the biggest ranches in the world and it's called The King Ranch and it's in Kingsville, Texas. But it's unlikely that it comes from that area, simply because it's a beef ranch and this has chicken in it and so, you know, there's all that to cook with.
COOK: And they were very, very proud of their beef. And I actually read a funny article. Basically the late Mary Clayberg(ph) who was the wife of the owner of the ranch, said she used to cringe, like her heart would drop every time some little well-meaning hostess would come to her house and present King Ranch Casserole to her because they didn't have anything to do with.
POLLOCK: And they probably particularly didn't like it.
COOK: She's choosing chicken and really all she wanted was a big hunk of beef.
COOK: Even if it didn't come from King Ranch, I'm just glad it exists. I don't care what the history is as long as it's in my belly.
POLLOCK: Well, what I love about that is, like, any comfort food, it might sound weird to somebody else, but it's very regional, it's very specific to people's families and dear to their hearts and so your love for it has made me love it.
COOK: Thank you, Sandy.
POLLOCK: Thank you, Crystal.
BLOCK: Crystal Cook and Sandy Pollack, the casserole queens. You can get a King Ranch Casserole in your belly by following their recipe. It's at our Found Recipes page at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.