Friday, July 27, 2012

Chicken-fried Chicken à la King Ranch Chicken.

Yeah, it's a mouthful. © Ryan Schierling
As with any recipe that's been around for more than 75 years, there will always be nebulous narratives about the origins. Vague references to obscure cookbooks – long out of print, written by chefs long-since dead – are all we have to rely on. Well... that, fond and faded memories, and Wikipedia.

Fried chicken has been around since chickens evolved from dinosaurs. Delicious, delicious dinosaurs.

Chicken à la King dates back to the late 1800s – a hotel cook in Philadelphia, perhaps. In the simplest forms, it is diced chicken in a cream sauce with sherry and mushrooms, usually served over toast points.

King Ranch Chicken can be traced to a 20-year stretch between 1945 and 1965 and despite the moniker, has no ties to the sprawling Kingsville, Texas ranch of the same name. It is, roughly, a chicken enchilada casserole with a spicy cream sauce and a boatload of Colby and Jack cheese.

Junior League cookbooks and soup can labels will provide a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the standards like fried chicken, chicken à la King or King Ranch Chicken. Follow recipes to the letter and you will be blessed with crowd-pleasing, pleasantly bland, rib-sticking, middle-of-the-road, middle-of-America fare. However, venture off the path into the hinterlands, and you will find the bastard chicken, I mean children, of these tried-and-true classics.

Boned, butterflied, and buttermilked chicken thighs are dredged in well-seasoned flour and fried until crispy. Texas toast is slathered in butter and griddled. Tiny brown mushrooms are quartered and sautéed with a hit of sherry. The pale green sauce is born of roasted tomatillos, poblano and serrano peppers, onion, garlic and a lot of heavy cream.

It is fried chicken. It is Chicken à la King. It is King Ranch Chicken. It is all of these, and still none of these.

We also tried a version that incorporated the copious cheese typically found in King Ranch Chicken (a Texas toast grilled-cheese sandwich with American and smoked cheddar cheese under the chicken-fried chicken) but it was just too rich and heavy. This version was just right. 

Chicken-fried Chicken à la King Ranch Chicken

El Rey Sauce

1 small white onion, chopped fine
6 serrano peppers, seeded and chopped
8 tomatillos
4 poblano peppers
1 head garlic
2 tablespoons masa harina
1 heaping tablespoon cumin
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
kosher salt 

Move your oven rack to eight inches or so below the broiler and set the oven to broil. Put whole tomatillos, poblano peppers and head of garlic on a foil-lined baking sheet. Drizzle olive oil over all of them and place under the broiler. When the peppers become fragrant and are starting to char, pull the pan out and flip the peppers over. Broil until the skin of the peppers is blackened and the tomatillos are soft. The garlic will begin to blacken a bit on the outside paper. Remove the pan from the broiler. Place the poblano peppers in a paper or plastic bag and seal it up (we tend to use empty tortilla chip bags and a chip-clip). Let the peppers sit until cool, then peel the charred skin off and remove the seeds and membranes. Put the tomatillos into the bowl of a food processor. Add the skinned poblanos, and squeeze out the soft roasted garlic cloves from their papery husk.

In a skillet over medium heat, sauté the onion and serrano peppers in a bit of butter until soft. Sprinkle two tablespoons of masa harina over the onions and peppers. Add cumin, salt and the chicken stock, stirring constantly until well-incorporated and beginning to bubble gently. Simmer until nicely thickened. Pour mixture into the food processor bowl with the tomatillos, poblano peppers and garlic. Purée until smooth and pour back into the skillet over medium-low heat. Add cream, stir well and taste. You'll probably need another pinch or two of salt. Turn heat to low.


6 boneless chicken thighs, butterflied
1 pint buttermilk
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
oil, for frying

Soak the chicken thighs in the buttermilk for at least a few hours, overnight if possible. Mix the flour, chili powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper together in a low, wide bowl. Remove chicken from buttermilk, dredge in seasoned flour and move to a rack over a few paper towels. Let the thighs rest at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour and the flour will begin to form a thick paste on the outside of the chicken. This makes a nice crust when frying. Heat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat and add vegetable or peanut oil 1/2-inch up the side of the skillet. When the oil reaches 325-degrees on an instant-read thermometer, add two of the butterflied chicken thighs to the oil. Cook 6-8 minutes on each side, depending how thick your chicken is, or until a thermometer inserted into the chicken reads 180-degrees. Place fried chicken on crumpled-up paper towels, or a clean rack over paper towels. Let oil recover to 325 and cook additional chicken.


1 pint little tiny baby brown mushrooms, cut into quarters
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon sherry

In a little saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter and toss the mushrooms in. When they start to soften, add the sherry and continue to stir for another few minutes. Remove from heat. 


6 pieces thick-cut white bread or Texas Toast

It's just toast. It's not that hard. Liberally spread softened butter on both sides of bread and toast in a medium-hot skillet until nicely brown. You can also do this in a toaster oven or under the broiler if you're so inclined. I tend to forget about bread in the oven this far into the process and we end up with carbonized little bread briquettes, so I use a cast iron comal on the stove top.

Place toast on the plate. Top with chicken-fried chicken, a spoonful of mushrooms and 1/2 cup or so of sauce. Garnish with pickled jalapeño and chives. 

Serves six.

Note (and a warning): If you choose to go the Texas Toast grilled cheese route underneath the fried chicken, you will need double the amount of bread, and procure some melty cheeses normally associated with King Ranch Chicken. Acceptable are Colby, Monterrey Jack, Colby Jack, cheddar, and good old-fashioned American cheese. Bonus high-five USA points for aerosol cheese. Griddle as you would normally cook grilled cheese sandwiches. You will also need a squeeze of lime juice over the entire dish to finish, because something acidic has got to cut through that cheese and cream and fried goodness. Trust me on this. 


  1. must have gotten ahold of some pretty good stuff before writing this recipe.rl ps,tried a variety of log in to comment methods but this was the only one that worked {I hope}

  2. RL - Haha, sometimes I wonder the same thing! But it was tasty, and that El Rey sauce is golden for all kinds of applications - a new favorite of mine, at least.

    I think the trick is that 'Comment as:" will recognize you if you're already logged in to your profile with Google or Typepad, etc. Otherwise, you may use "Anonymous" and just identify yourself as you have here.

  3. Julie and Ryan, Again you have successfully made me wish computer screens were food teleportation portals. I.Want.This.


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