King Ranch Chicken: a Cultural Experience

When I left for Germany I brought a gift with me for my host family: real Texas salsa. They were a bit confused by the jar and asked me what they were supposed to put it on. I decided then that before I left I would make them a real Texan dinner, so they could experience Texan food. My mother always makes King Ranch Chicken casserole when she wants to impress guests with Texan food, so I emailed her for the recipe. For my last night in Wittenberg my host mother and I planned a small family party. This was to be the night that I debuted my Texan dinner. Two days before I carefully converted all of the measurements to metrics, translated the ingredients, and set off for the Super Market. That was when I discovered that I was going to have to substitute a lot more than corn tortillas and Ro-Tel. It turns out that canned soups are not very popular in Germany, and cream of anything is hard to find. My recipe called for both cream of mushroom and cream of chicken soups. I picked up two bags of Champignons Sause instead. The biggest shock, however, was the complete lack of cheddar cheese. I searched in three stores to no avail. In the end I had to fall back on “pizza cheese” a mozzarella blend that I hoped would at least melt well. While I worked in the kitchen to assemble the casserole the day before (as it is supposed to sit in the fridge overnight), my German family and their guests watched me, baffled. “Are you putting the tomatoes in with the mushroom sauce?” they asked. Apparently Auflauf (casserole) is not very popular in this area of Germany, and it was seen as “very American of me” to put all of my ingredients together in one pan. But that was just the beginning of the adventure.

The next day it came time to bake my casserole. It mostly just needed warmed, as I had cooked the chicken ahead of time. The original recipe, however, called for it to be in the oven for 90 minutes. In a stroke of luck, I checked it after about 30 to find the top about to transition from brown and crispy to burnt. After a frantic Skype call to my mother, who assured me that the general less creaminess of the mushroom sauce in comparison to cream soup lead it to cook faster, I went ahead and took it out. Her other tip had been to smear the top with butter. Fortunately, it turned out fine. My host family ate all of it, and claimed to like it. They like the salsa too. It was quite the lesson in cooking in other cultures. And I used to think it was hard to find Mexican food in South Carolina! Now I know that, even though the world is becoming more globalized, not everything that is normal to me is normal to everyone. Who would have guessed that making dinner would be such a cultural awakening?

The finished product

The finished product

If you are interested, here is the recipe from Mary Alsmiller:

King Ranch Chicken

4 chicken breasts, cooked and cubed (or a few cups of cooked chicken)
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can cream of chicken soup (or substitute both with mushroom sauce)
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
3/4 cup chicken broth
1 can Ro-tel tomatoes (or just canned tomatoes)
1 onion chopped
3/4 to 1 lb grated cheese (anything that will melt is fine)
12 corn tortillas (or some flour tortillas)

In large mixing bowl, combine soups, broth, tomatoes, salt and pepper.  Stir well.  Tear tortillas into 1 x 3 inch strips.  Spray a large flat 13 x 9 inch pan with vegetable cooking spray.  Spread a little of the soup mixture on the bottom on the pan.  Add a layer of tortilla strips, then a layer of chicken and a layer of the soup mixture.  Sprinkle with chopped onion and grated cheese.  Repeat layers until all ingredients are used, ending with cheese on top. (so if you run out of something, just keep going until you have only cheese left)  Cover with foil and refrigerate overnight.  This helps to blend flavors so plan ahead and don’t skip this step for best flavor.  At this point, the casserole can be frozen for later baking.  Remove foil and bake in a 300 degree oven for 1 1/2 hours.

 Serves 6-10