|King Ranch Chicken with fresh corn and watermelon|
A Texas Tale
There was a story that was told about my paternal great grandfather—he went by Willie—for most of my life, for most of my father's life, for all of my grandfather's life, and most of Willie's life... and it wasn't true. At least parts of it weren't true.
Willie lived and worked on King Ranch, a sprawling piece of land near Kingsville in south Texas, and was close to the ranch's founder Captain Richard King. He was Captain King's personal driver, and his wife Maria worked in the house with Henrietta King as a seamstress. The connection was close enough that when Captain King died, he left a small portion of the land to my great grandfather, which he continued to work until his death. Captain King himself had led a storied childhood, less than ideal to put it mildly (check this page from the King Ranch website for his story), and took in my great grandfather as a young teenager, gave him a job, and allowed him to carve out some stability for himself.
That part of the story is true. What's not true is how Willie came to be in south Texas by himself at such a young age. The story that was passed down in my family was that he had been orphaned while his family was traveling west in a wagon train, and then eventually he found himself in south Texas where he met and befriended Captain King. Nothing else was known about his early life. It was a believable enough story, but it was always a bit of a family mystery.... and a huge and captivating mystery to me. I never knew my dad's dad. He died a year before I was born and was my only grandparent I did not have the pleasure of having in my life. I always felt his absence. As a young adult, while watching my maternal grandparents aging at what seemed like a quicker and quicker pace, I started interviewing them to try to capture as much as I could about their lives (these ended up being some wonderful times with them, I spent many college weekends driving 3 hours to visit them, just sitting around the table talking or sometimes jumping in the car and going on a tour of places where they or other family members had lived or worked). That experience led me to start investigating the rest of my family, the stories were just so rich and made all of these people who I'd never known or barely known but shared DNA and history with all the more real.
And, all this coincided with the dawn of the internet. I had posted a query on a family history forum asking for any information about Willie, and about 3 years later I received an e-mail from a woman who thought he might be the missing brother from her mother's family. It took a little digging and looking at birth and death records and comparing stories and information, but we finally determined he was indeed the brother that had gone missing... dates and birth locations all matched up, as did his name (which is not a terribly common name now and certainly not back then), and he had named his 2 daughters after his grandmother and mother. There was just enough data to piece the puzzle together. And this led to a bigger story, one that was probably much closer to the truth.
|vegetables added to sauté pan|
|softened vegetables, just before adding flour|
|finished vegetable sauce, ready to remove from heat|
The whole thing was a big mystery in that branch of the family as well. They believed that Willie had probably been killed by his own father, who was terribly abusive. He was just gone one day. It's a horrible truth—one that I luckily have a hard time even fathoming—but one that actually makes me feel really proud of Willie. Leaving a bad situation requires courage, especially when it means leaving behind people you care about, but when there is the threat of death—which apparently there was—well, he needed to leave. It was a different time, when a person could reinvent themselves, erase their past (at least everywhere except their own memories), and create a new life. It's sort of the standard American tale of a man pulling himself up by his bootstraps to improve his situation, but it's also a classic human condition... as true today as it was then: people just trying to not only survive but to create better lives for themselves and their families. It transcends time, geography, race, religion, gender, and age. We all just want to live, and to live happily.
I think it's important to remember also that my great grandfather Willie was shown a kindness. He had help. Maybe he told his story to Captain King and King saw a bit of himself in that young boy. There is no way to know, but the simple fact remains that King helped Willie. Too often that part of the standard American tale goes untold. Everyone needs help and a little kindness sometimes.
|thin layer of vegetable mixture on the bottom|
|1st layer of tortillas|
|1st set of layers of vegetable mixture, chicken, and cheese|
All of that was a really long way to lead into this recipe for King Ranch Casserole, part of my quest to rescue some beloved traditional dishes from canned food oblivion. No one really knows why King Ranch Chicken is called King Ranch Chicken, but it is a classic Texas dish, a casserole made with chicken, corn tortillas, cheese, peppers and tomatoes, and usually canned cream of mushroom soup. The Homesick Texan had already done some great work rescuing this casserole from the can (she has a new cookbook that just came out, by the way), so I started with her recipe but altered it to make it a bit lighter and include mushrooms and zucchini (which I had and needed to use, but it was a good addition). The result ended up being really nice, it definitely had the traditional flavor but was not as heavy.
King Ranch Chicken
Adapted from The Homesick Texan
Yield: 8 servings
- olive oil
- 5 crimini mushrooms, diced
- 1/2 of a zucchini, diced
- 1/2 of a sweet onion, diced
- 2 large tomatoes, diced (do not discard seeds)
- 3 roasted green chiles, peeled, seeded, and diced
- juice and zest from 1 lime
- 1 T dried oregano (Mexican oregano preferably, but any variety will work)
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp chili powder (you can adjust this to your taste, this amount gave it a moderate kick, but it was a little too spicy for my kids)
- 2 T flour
- 1/2 C chicken broth or stock
- 1 C fat-free milk
- Kosher salt to taste
- 2 1/2 C cooked chicken, diced (I used leftover rotisserie chicken)
- 9 corn tortillas
- 1 C grated cheddar
- 1 1/2 C grated queso Oaxaco (this is a white, semihard and somewhat stringy cheese, substitute Monterry Jack if you can't find the queso Oaxaca)
- sour cream (light or full-fat, your choice)
- Preheat oven to 350°.
- Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add just enough olive oil to coat. Add all of the vegetables, juice, and spices except for salt (mushrooms through chili powder) and sauté until the vegetables have softened, about 10 minutes.
- Add the flour and stir well until it is completely mixed in. Add the broth/stock and milk and reduce heat to low. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the mixture has thickened slightly. Add salt to taste and remove from heat.
- Lightly coat an 11 x 7 inch casserole dish with butter or olive oil. Spread a very thin layer of the vegetable mixture over the bottom.
- Line the dish with 4 1/2 of the tortillas. Use the 1/2 tortilla to fill in any spots not covered by the other 4.
- Spread 1/2 of the remaining vegetable mixture over the top of the tortillas, then sprinkle with 1/2 of the chicken, and 1/2 of the cheese over the top.
- Create another layer of tortillas, then sauce, chicken, and cheese.
- Bake at 350° for 30 minutes.
- Top each serving with a dollop of sour cream.
|final layer, ready to go into the oven|
Who am I to out-quote Larry McMurtry?
"Kings of Texas is a fresh and very welcome history of the great King Ranch. It's concise but thorough, crisply written, meticulous, and very readable. It should find a wide audience." —Larry McMurtry