This creamy mac & cheese is packed with southwestern flavors including poblano peppers, cumin, chili powder, and Monterey Jack cheese. It’s serious comfort food on a chilly day!
This right here is classic comfort food. King Ranch Chicken Mac & Cheese is super cheesy, full of southwestern flavor, and oh-so-comforting.
It’s a great weeknight meal, and it’s also ideal for sharing, like bringing to brand new parents, or a friend who is sick.
What is “king ranch”?
You know what mac & cheese is. But what’s with the “king ranch”? Traditional King Ranch Casserole is a classic southwestern-inspired dish that includes lightly fried corn tortillas, chicken, southwestern spices, and peppers in a cheesy sauce. It is delicious.
But this recipe takes it to another level. It has all those flavors PLUS mac & cheese. What could go wrong?!
- I used gemelli pasta for this dish. Any short pasta like penne or ziti would work, too.
- Onion, bell pepper, and poblano pepper add lots of flavor
- A combination of half & half and milk create the ultra creamy sauce
- Three cheeses (cheddar, Monterey jack, and cream cheese) make it super cheesy. The cream cheese stabilizes the sauce so it reheats nicely.
- Rotisserie chicken makes this dish easy. You can use chopped chicken breast or chicken thighs that you’ve cooked yourself, instead, if you wish!
How to make king ranch chicken mac & cheese
Cook the pasta according to package directions.
Meanwhile, cook the onion, red pepper, and poblano pepper over medium heat until soft.
Add the cumin, chili powder, and salt. Then, stir in the flour and allow it to cook for 1 minute. This eliminates any chance of a raw flour taste in the cheese sauce.
Whisk in the milk and half & half.
Then, stir in the cheddar, Monterey Jack, and cream cheeses. Add the cooked pasta, chicken, and cilantro and stir until combined. Top with crushed tortilla chips and more cilantro, and serve.
My sauce is too thick. How can I make the cheese sauce thinner?
Whisk in up to ½ cup of hot water from the pasta to thin out the sauce. I recommend grating the cheddar cheese and Monterey Jack cheese from a block, instead of using pre-shredded cheese. Pre-shredded cheese contains potato starch or cornstarch, which helps the cheese not to stick together, but also makes cheese sauces overly thick.
How do I reheat mac & cheese?
Place the mac & cheese in an oven-safe casserole dish and cover with foil. Place in a 350°F oven for 20 minutes, or until warm throughout.
How to serve king ranch chicken mac & cheese
Tortilla chips add a salty, crunchy layer to the top of the mac & cheese. Add the chips just before serving so they don’t get soggy.
Fresh chopped cilantro adds a pop of color and freshness to the dish.
A green salad would be a nice side dish to serve with it. The mac & cheese is very hearty and filling, so whatever side you choose, select something on the lighter side!
King Ranch Chicken Mac and Cheese
- 1 lb dried pasta (I used gemelli, ziti or penne would be good choices, too!)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 small red bell pepper, finely chopped
- 1 poblano pepper, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons cumin
- 2 teaspoons chili powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ cup flour
- 2 cups half & half
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
- 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
- 4 oz cream cheese, softened
- 1 rotisserie chicken, meat pulled off the bone and chopped
- 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
- For garnish: cilantro, crushed tortilla chips
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente (follow package directions). Drain and set aside.
- Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the chopped onion, bell pepper, and poblano pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft, about 6–8 minutes. Add the cumin, chili powder, and salt. Cook for 1 minute more.
- Sprinkle the flour over the top. Stir and cook for 1 minute. Whisk in the half & half and milk. Cook until the sauce thickens slightly, about 2–3 minutes. Whisk in the shredded cheeses and cream cheese.
- In a large bowl, combine the cooked pasta, chopped chicken, and ¾ of the cilantro. Pour the cheese sauce over the top. Stir to combine.
- Transfer the mac & cheese to a greased 13x9 inch casserole dish.
- Top with crushed tortilla chips and the rest of the chopped cilantro. Serve immediately.
- Shred the cheese yourself to avoid an overly thick sauce (packaged cheese contains potato starch or cornstarch, which thickens the sauce too much). If using pre-shredded cheese, whisk in up to ½ cup of the pasta water to thin the sauce.
- To give as a gift (or to reheat): follow the recipe through step #5. Cover with foil. Mac & cheese can be reheated in a 350°F oven until warm (about 20 minutes). Garnish with tortilla chips and cilantro when ready to serve (otherwise the tortilla chips will get soggy).