Monday, October 02, 2006

Add a can, lose the bland

Ten years ago, another Texan friend who had also recently moved to New York City gave me a call. “You’ll never believe what I found in Brooklyn!” she said. I could hear the excitement in her voice. “What? What? Tell me!” I said. She wouldn’t divulge her find, she just insisted I come over to her apartment immediately to see for myself—I would not be disappointed. Curious, I hopped in a cab and sped across Central Park to the Upper East Side. When I arrived, she and her husband had big silly grins on their faces and they led me to the kitchen. Sitting alone on the counter, bathed in fluorescent light was a long-lost friend—a can of Rotel Tomatoes.

If you’re not familiar with Rotel Tomatoes, here’s a bit of history. Back in the 1940’s, a vegetable packer from Elsa, Texas named Carl Roettele started canning his mix of Valley-grown diced tomatoes, green chilies and spices. He called his product Rotel (because he didn’t think anyone would be able to pronounce the brand if he used his real name.) His tomatoes were an instant hit, and soon became a staple in every Texan’s pantry. Slowly, Rotel branched to the neighboring states, and Con Agra eventually bought out the Roettele family’s business, but it’s still a regional thing, far off the culinary map for many Americans. And that's a shame.

I’m fortunate that I have a place called Kitchen Market a block away from me that stocks Rotel tomatoes, but I’ve always found it odd that with ConAgra’s powerful distribution network Rotel isn’t a more popular and easy-to-find product. Muir Glen Organics sells a version of tomatoes with green chiles, but it just doesn’t have the same kick as the real deal. I reckon it’s the spices Rotel uses that gives it its unique flavor. And while it’s spicy, it’s not fiery, unless you’ve eaten nothing but ice cream your whole life. I did a Factiva search to see Rotel’s press penetration over the past 20 years, and 99% of the articles mentioning Rotel were either from Texas or Louisiana. Which makes a bit of sense since it’s a great secret ingredient for so many Tex-Mex, Creole and Cajun dishes. But these cuisines’ popularity have expanded far beyond their regional borders, so perhaps ConAgra should consider distributing Rotel more widely. And with salsa being the number-one condiment in America today, I think with the right marketing approach, Rotel could become a big hit, too.

What can you do with Rotel? You can put it in chili (if you like to use tomatoes), you can make salsa, you can bake it with chicken, you can throw it in tortilla soup, you can add it to beans, but I think everyone’s favorite dish with the tomatoes is Rotel dip—what some might call chili con queso. It’s a cheesy delight, and was a party staple growing up in Texas. It’s quite simple: You take a block of Velveeta, a can of Rotel, throw the two together in a pot and as the Velveeta melts, you can add a bit of milk to thin the mixture. Pour it in a bowl and serve with tortilla chips. Voila! An instant hit, I promise. It’s amazingly addictive, and a bowl never stays full for very long. If you like, you can jazz it up by adding a scoop of guacamole or some taco meat, but it’s terrific without any embellishment.

And that’s what we decided to make that night on the Upper East Side ten years ago. As we sat in that tiny apartment crowded around the bowl of Rotel dip, we didn’t talk for a while, we just dipped and ate, savoring Rotel’s spiciness mixed with the cheesy goodness. It was a notable night in New York City—we’d been reunited with an old Texan friend.

If you've never cooked with Rotel Tomatoes, give them a try if you can find them--I just bought the last can at Kitchen Market, but they promise to restock. If you already are a Rotel fan, what do you cook with them?

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30 comments:

melissa mcgee said...

ahhhh, the rotel tomato. no party in texas is complete without a crockpot full of queso. not queso in the traditional sense (everybody knows there's no cheese in velveeta) but queso in the "party in texas" sense. i don't know when rotel queso gained popularity, but i can't remember a time that i didn't know what rotel queso was.

as we speak there are at least 6 cans of rotel in my pantry. i use rotel in lots of things - beef stew, king ranch chicken casserole (great for potlucks - everybody loves king ranch!) arroz con pollo, torilla soup... i'm one of those people who believes that there's just about nothing that doesn't taste better with rotel.

i have an aunt and uncle in hollywood, ca, and my aunt grew up in texas where the rotel tomatoes flowed like wine. ;) when she moved to hollywood in 1974, my family started sending her cases of rotel tomatoes about twice a year. she's found a place that sells it now, and everytime she has company over - which is often - she manages to serve something with rotel tomatoes and the reviews are always raves.

definitely a texas treasure!

Mick Gordon said...

I grew up in South Africa and I still hunger for my childhood delicacies - Avacado - anchovie pate and marmite.

Yvo said...

Hmm, I'm going to check fresh direct for that. Only because you say it's not that spicy since I'm not big on spicy. Mm, I wonder how much time that cuts out for making your own salsa. :)

matt said...

Oh my my my, you're blowing me away here. As Melissa said, it's truly no party without a crockpot of queso and rotel tomatoes. So many people have looked at me strangely over the years when I talk about this.


I could bury my face in a hot bowl of that right now.

AdamH said...

I've found Rotel here at my supermarket across the street (and I live in western Massachusetts), but the two cans I bought of it to try went into some baked pasta dishes I made for a friend right after she had a baby. She loved the pasta, so I guess either the Rotel helped or she was happy to not have to cook, or both! I made two giant pans of lazy lasagna.

UnGourmetGal said...

Rotel, stuff dreams are made of :) I buy the fiery version and always, always add it to my enchiladas. They add a nice kick to the filling of my enchiladas, but of course queso is the ultimate Rotel indulgence.

christine (myplateoryours) said...

I've been buying Rotel in the grocery stores here in Bloomington, Indiana, since the late 1970s, and I never knew about its Texas roots. A can of Rotel, a block of velveeta, an extra can of chopped chiles, and a bag of chips. Haven't done it in a while, but maybe it's time.

County Clerk said...

I could use some queso... and some sunshine.

Backyard Chef said...

I love those Rotels...they are great in pot of pintos-- among other things. They're hit or miss in my local markets, but I feel a hunt going on...maybe make some chili this weekend...with no beans!

Casey said...

It's very funny to find someone blogging about Rotel. I, too, am a Texan expat. I heart Rotel and was so, so excited to find it at the Food Emporium in Union Square. I bought about five cans just in case. My roommate (who is also a Texan) and I have introduced all of our Northeastern friends to the wonders of the Velveeta&Rotel dip. It calls for it's own adjective...quesoriffic.

kristen said...

I'm fortunate to live in Brooklyn near a Hispanic-friendly grocery, and most recently, used Rotel in the best chili I've ever made. Yellow onion, yellow bell pepper, or 4 cloves of crushed garlic, a 26-oz can of plain diced tomatoes plus the Rotel, a can of dark kidney beans, a can of light kidney beans, about 1/3 cup of chili powder and comino seeds ground together, and one fresh cayenne pepper. Yowzah! A lovely night.

Ken Wheaton said...

Yes. Definitely huge in Louisiana as well. My heart always skips a beat when I see a can of Rotel. By the way, did you know Chef Boyardee is spelled that way for the exact same reason... they figured they'd spell it phonetically to make it easier to pronounce.

JC said...

I live in Texas and I didn't know that Rotel was a regional thing. I guess I just took it for granted - now I have a greater appreciation for it!

kc said...

So glad I found this! We moved from Texas about a month ago, and I've spent what seems like hours wandering the grocery stores asking myself, "Where the hell is the Rotel???" I'm both comforted and concerned that other Texans have had this same problem. So many of the recipes I make depend upon Rotel. Anyone have a recommendation for where to buy it on the UWS?

kc said...

So glad I found this! We moved from Texas about a month ago, and I've spent what seems like hours wandering the grocery stores asking myself, "Where the hell is the Rotel???" I'm both comforted and concerned that other Texans have had this same problem. So many of the recipes I make depend upon Rotel. Anyone have a recommendation for where to buy it on the UWS?

Homesick Texan said...

KC--Welcome to NYC! I never saw it on the UWS when I lived there, but Kitchen Market in Chelsea at 8th Ave and 21st stocks it (just a short trip on the 1 train). Also, Key Foods in Brooklyn usually has it as well.

Luna said...

I'm a "damn Yankee" - a Yankee who came to Texas, and stayed. At 22, I moved here from Michigan. I still tell stories of all the new food I soon found and loved. Something yummy and easy my Texan best friend does is sort of "poach" chicken breasts in a can of rotel. Then, we drain it, shred the meat and pile it on hot homemade (IF we can get 'em) tortillas.

Cassi said...

I have seen these ate our grocery store for a while now, thanks for the background on them. I just added them to our chili this weekend, what an added flavor. I will posted the chili tonight ( I hope)

centrs said...

if you want especially decadent and delicious queso, cook up a batch of jimmy dean breakfast sausage - regular or spicy and mix that in with the cheese and rotel. it is to die for.

Aaron said...

I have grown up in the Midwest and have always had Rotel as a staple in my family's pantry. We make queso all the time when friends would come over. My favorite dish it to take a pork shoulder roast, cover it in Rotel in a crockpot, add some water, cook for 5 hours and make enchiladas with some cheese and salsa out of them, but no enchilada sauce, just some left over juice from the meat, Bake it and you have the best meal ever.

Lara said...

And if you want to "gourmet" up your queso a bit, you can saute some chopped onion in a little butter and add that to the queso. Once the Velveeta has melted, add a bit of grated Monterey Jack or Pepper Jack cheese. And use half-and-half to thin the queso; don't mess around with milk!

Lara in Austin

Melissa said...

While browsing your achives I ran across this post, because browsing your archives is a lot more fun than actually working. I grew up in Memphis, TN and Rotel dip was a weekend staple around our house.

In 1986 my husband and I moved to Ohio, I went to the grocery, I searched the tomato section looking for Rotel. It was no where to be found. Talk about culture shock. When I asked about it the store manager looked at me like I was a nut. From that moment on whenever I went back home I filled the trunk with several cases of Rotel.

In a crunch we would make Rotel dip with two cans of Campbell's cheddar cheese soup.

Jenn, outside of Philly said...

I'm a Texas transplant to PA ( or as I affectionately call this area, "Yankeedom".) Rotel and Velveeta was a college get together staple, and when I moved up here 3 years ago, I was heartbroken to not find the variety of Rotel that I was used to(as well as no Wolf Brand Chili, but thats a different story...). It became a special treat in a 1.50 can (which also pained me that it was that pricey, but so worth it.)

I have now found Rotel in Giant and Acme supermarkets here, and not just the regular can. The Mild and Spicy options are now starting to spread. Cans are still pretty pricey, but still, so worth it.

Anonymous said...

I have a great recipe for a tasty Rotel dip...take a "tube" of Jimmy Dean sausage (any flavor that you like) fry it up and then place it in a crock pot, add a brick of cream cheese, and a can of Rotel tomatoes...let it all get nice and warm and there you have it...it is excellent with some tortilla chips!!!

Anonymous said...

For people who are having trouble finding Rotel tomatoes: you can buy 12 cans at a time from Amazon grocery and get super saver shipping. Amazon has Chunky and Medium but Original seems to be out of stock at the moment.

Anonymous said...

I am glad to know that I am not the only one who puts Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage in queso. I'm making some for the big UT/OU game this weekend and wondered if I should try it with chorizo instead. Then I figured if I'm using Velveeta, I probably shouldn't worry too much about being authentic.

Anonymous said...

For anyone in NJ, Walmart and Shop Rite carry rotel tomatoes for .98 to 1.15 a can.

Anonymous said...

I'm a TX transplant to Cozumel, MX. I have friends (we call them mules) bring down blocks of Velveeta and Rotel to make the queso dip.

One of our groceries store was recently transformed by gremlins during the night. We now have loads of sought-after American products. One of them is Rotel w/ Cilantro. I've haven't tried it, yet.

I make poached/shredded chicken w/ rice. I use half of the liquid for making the rice. The remainder and the tomatoes go into the chicken. After shredding, I throw the chicken back in the pan w/ the sauce and drop cubes of Velveeta over. Then serve over the spicy rice. I'll try the cilantro version w/ the recipe. I might top w/ some fresh cilantro, too.

I also use the poached/shredded for my chili rellenos and queso sauce on top.

The store I mentioned also is carrying Pace picante sauce hot, medium and chunky, too. So many things you took for granted are missed when you move away.

In Cozumel, we know if you see something rare in the store, buy as much as you can store. You may never see it on the island again. You may even be able to sell it on the black market to other ex-pats.

We have a restauranteur from El Paso who is going to be opening a TX-MEX restaurant. I can hardly wait.

James said...

Rotel is good but I prefer the Hatch brand of canned tomatoes with green chiles (made by the same NM folks who sell the canned green chiles in the little bitty cans that are oh so good).

We also have pretty decent generic canned tomatoes and green chiles at some of our grocery chains in Oklahoma.

Kae Lucchini said...

I didn't really know Rotel was regional. and I'm one of those people that puts sausage in their queso! I tried your "more natural version of chile con queso" tonight. It was awesome! I still added the sausage though... and no cilatro...

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