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?