Sunday, November 2, 2014

King Ranch Salmon.

King Ranch Smoked Salmon Casserole. © Ryan Schierling
I've been threatening to do this casserole recipe for a while now, and I'm kind of surprised there's nothing like it out there on the whole wide world of internets. Searches for King Ranch Salmon turned up lots of hits for "King Salmon," "Used F-150 King Ranch edition in Salmon, Idaho," and "Carole King's ranch on the Salmon River for sale." The internet – insultingly enough – even asked me "Did you mean King Ranch Chicken?"

King Ranch Chicken is the only casserole that matters in Texas and there are rules. There may be as many subtle individual adaptations and family variations as there are Junior League cookbooks, but most will concur this is a dish best kept simple – with shredded chicken, cans of cream of this-or-that soups and Ro*Tel®, corn tortillas and a ton of cheese. 

This, however, is not King Ranch Chicken.

There is no condensed soup, no Cheese Whiz, no crushed-up nacho-flavored tortilla chips or tins of tomato and green chile. There is no chicken. This is the king of Texas casseroles meets the king of all cold-water fish. It is SXNW. It is smoky, creamy, rich, and as satisfying as comfort food gets. Great Republic purists will inevitably call this just another sensationalist bastardization of a classic Texas dish, but they can go put a sockeye in it. 

This is my King Ranch Salmon.

Begin by making the El Rey sauce for the casserole (recipe follows). This can be prepared days in advance and refrigerates well. 

King Ranch Smoked Salmon Casserole

8 ounces hot-smoked King or Sockeye salmon
30 corn tortillas, some cut in half to fit straight sides of casserole dish
1 batch El Rey sauce, recipe below
10 ounces queso Oaxaca (or Monterey Jack), grated, with 2 ounces reserved
16 ounces cream cheese, whipped with the 8 ounces of queso Oaxaca
2 red bell peppers, roasted, seeded, peeled and chopped
1 bunch cilantro, finely-chopped with stems reserved
1/4 small red onion, cut into slivers
Juice of 4 limes
Kosher salt to taste

Combine the onions and lime juice with a pinch of kosher salt in a small bowl and set aside. Chop the cilantro stems and set aside. These are your casserole garnishes.

Preheat the oven to 350-degrees. In a 9x13-inch baking dish, ladle down a thin layer of sauce. Layer tortillas to cover the bottom. Flake 2 ounces of smoked salmon onto the tortillas. Add 1/3 of the roasted red peppers. Drop cream cheese by the teaspoonful onto the salmon, distributing about 1/3 of the mixture evenly across the layer. Sprinkle 2 ounces of grated queso Oaxaca onto layer and then 1/3 of the chopped cilantro. Ladle on a thin layer of El Rey sauce. Top with tortillas and push the layer down slightly with your hands, squishing everything below. Repeat the layering process two more times, ending with a layer of tortillas, a layer of sauce, and the remaining queso Oaxaca. 

Bake uncovered at 350-degrees until bubbling around the edges and the cheese on top is melted and beginning to brown slightly, about 40 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes, then cut into slices and garnish with pickled red onion and chopped cilantro stems. 

Serves eight. 

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.

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