Normally, when I see that a recipe contains the ingredient, “tortilla chips,” I run the other way. Such an ingredient suggests the sort of processed, high-fat, high-sodium food I normally avoid, and gets a little too close to the Paula Deen style of cooking, which, frankly, makes my arteries shrivel up just thinking about it. But, I came across this recipe for a tortilla chip casserole in a Cooking Light several years ago, so I was intrigued. I trust Cooking Light implicitly, and I thought, “They would not lead me down the dark path of processed food. If they can make a light and healthy tortilla chip casserole, then gosh darn it, I will try it.”
So I did.
And let me tell you, never did a tortilla chip taste so damn good as it did in that casserole.
I have since made variations on this casserole more than half a dozen times, and it has become one of my go-to dishes. It’s pretty versatile with whatever you have on hand, but the keys are:
1. the cheese sauce – it spreads out the cheesy goodness so you get the flavor, without a lot of the fat (this also works really well in lasagnas, FYI)
2. the tortilla chips (of course) – they are crunched up and spread throughout, so again, you get the great flavor and texture without as much fat or sodium as you would get in a traditional taco salad.
I like the dish with ground or shredded chicken, but you can use any sort of meat, or go totally veg with beans. Mix up the cheese however you want with whatever you have on hand. This dish can come together quickly if you use pantry staples like canned beans, corn, and salsa, but you can also easily sub them for fresh ingredients if they are in season. This also is perfect for leftovers and week-day lunches – make up a casserole on Sunday night and eat it throughout the week! Basically, it is one of my favorite dishes, and I can’t believe I once turned my nose up at it, simply because it contained tortilla chips. Lesson learned.
Healthy Taco Casserole
Adapted from this Cooking Light recipe
Time: 1 hour (active time 30 mins) Serves: 6
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 1 T minced fresh garlic
- 2 T all-purpose flour
- 1 cup 1% reduced-fat milk
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 1.5 tsp ground cumin
- 3/4 tsp ground coriander
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 4 oz 1/3-less-fat cream cheese (do NOT use fat-free, it won’t work)
- 3 cups chopped chicken breast, or 12 oz ground chicken
- 1 can black, pinto, or other beans, rinsed and drained (1.5 cups)
- 1 can corn, rinsed and drained (1.5 cups)
- 1 4 oz can green chiles
- 1 bell pepper, chopped
- 8 oz salsa, green chile enchilada sauce, or plain old tomato sauce
- 4 oz baked tortilla chips, crushed
- 2.5 ounces shredded cheddar-Monterey Jack cheese (about 2/3 cup)
- 2 T chopped scallions
- Optional: cilantro and/or yogurt/sour cream, for garnish
First, prep the filling
This recipe moves pretty quickly, so I recommend doing all your chopping, shredding, and measuring before you get started.
Mix up your spices in a small bowl, and set beside the stove.
Prepare your “veggie” prep bowl: bell pepper, corn, and green chiles.
Now, prepare your “protein” prep bowl. Heat a medium-sized pan on the stove, and add 1 tsp canola oil. When hot, add in your raw chicken breast or ground chicken. Sprinkle with 1/3 of the spice mixture, and stir frequently until cooked through. Remove from pan and place in your “protein” prep bowl, and add in the can of beans to the chicken.
Then, prep the cheese sauce
Reheat the pan on the stove – it’s ok if there are still some chicken juices in it. Add onion and cook 6 minutes. Add the rest of the spice mixture, garlic and flour; cook 2 minutes more. Slowly add the milk and the stock, stirring constantly; bring the mixture to a boil. Remove from heat; stir in the cream cheese and continue stirring until it has melted into the mixture. The mixture will now be pleasantly thickened.
Assemble the casserole
Preheat your oven to 350°, and get all your prep bowls together! Gather your cheese, salsa, and crushed tortilla chips. Spray a 11X7 baking dish with nonstick spray.
Layer as follows (or really in any order you like!)
1. Using a 1/2 cup measuring cup, scoop out 1/2 cup of the cheese sauce and spread on the bottom of the baking dish.
2. proteins (beans and chicken)
3. half the crushed chips
4. 1/2 cup cheese sauce
5. veggies (pepper, chiles, and corn)
6. remaining crushed chips
7. remaining cheese sauce
8. salsa (or green enchilada sauce, or regular old tomato sauce)
9. shredded cheese
Bake at 350° for 30 minutes. Sprinkle with green onions and or cilantro if you like; you may also serve it with a little sour cream or Greek yogurt on the side. Serves 6, and tastes just as good the next day!