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Practicing the basics: fajitas

Chicken fajitas

If I told you that fajitas were a Mexican dish dating back hundreds of years, you’d probably believe me, but I’d be lying. According to lore, they are Tex-Mex fare dating back about 100 years, started by ranch workers in the Rio Grande valley of south Texas, as a simple meal easy to prepare almost anywhere: meat and vegetables grilled over a campfire, wrapped in a tortilla. It became a specialty in Houston restaurants starting in the late 1960s, and spread from there.

Traditional fajitas have four main ingredients: skirt steak, onions, bell peppers, and tortillas. If you want, you can make the tortillas from scratch (it’s pretty easy, fun, and way better tasting then store-bought) but no one is going to judge you if you just buy your tortillas instead. That’s the magic of fajitas: there are some traditional ingredients, but there is no “traditional” preparation — the tradition is about simple food cooked simply.

The interesting part of a tortilla recipe is the marinade you use for the meat, which (as in many recipes) later becomes a sauce that you can cook the meat and vegetables in. There’s plenty of room for variation here; I’ve consulted a half-dozen different fajita recipes, and as you might suspect there is little agreement on the marinade ingredients. They all include lime juice and oil; from there, each chooses some subset of garlic, chili powder, cumin, and salt. Some suggest using soy sauce instead of salt, because it provides some interesting savory flavor as well (I’ve tried it; it works well). The recipe below is a great, tasty starting point, from which you can roll your own. This recipe also works great with either beef or chicken.

Suggested reading:

Makes 3-4 servings. Total time: 2 1/2 hours, including 2 hours for marinading the meat.

Ingredients:

For the marinade:

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup lime juice
  • 1 tbsp. kosher salt, or 1/8 cup soy sauce
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp. chili powder
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin

For the fajitas:

  • 1 lb. skirt steak, or 1 lb. chicken breasts or cutlets
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 green bell pepper
  • 1 white onion
  • 1 tbsp. cooking oil (such as canola or sunflower)

Combine all of the marinade ingredients in a medium bowl and stir with a whisk or fork until well mixed. If you’re using kosher salt and not soy sauce, make sure all of the salt is fully dissolved.

Cut the meat into slices about 1/2 inch wide and 2-3 inches long. Place the meat into the bowl with the marinade and stir to ensure that all of the meat is covered. Place in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, and up to 2 hours. The lime juice is slightly acidic, and if left in contact with the meat for more than a couple of hours it will start to affect the texture of the outer part of the meat.

Cut the peppers and onion into strips 1/2 inch wide and 2-3 inches long. Place in a bowl and set aside. Tip for cutting up the onion: cut it in half from stem to tail, remove the outer skin, then slice it cross-wise into 1/2 inch wide strips. For cutting up the bell peppers: check out this video or read about it here.

Remove meat from the refrigerator, and drain off the marinade into a small bowl and set aside. Allow the meat to sit so it can start to come up to room temperature. We’re going to use the leftover marinade later as a sauce to cook the meat and vegetables in.

Preheat a large skillet over medium heat. Place the meat in the skillet and cook until lightly browned, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Remove the meat from the skillet and place back in the bowl. This is a common method for stir-frying you may have seen before: cook each ingredient separately, then combine them back together at the end. It’s going to take a little while for the meat to start browning if it starts out wet. Make sure you thoroughly drain off the marinade, and for an extra browning boost, pat dry the meat with a paper towel before you put it into the skillet.

Add 1 tbsp cooking oil to the skillet, then the peppers and onion. Saute, until slightly softened, 3-4 minutes. Don’t fully cook them yet — they’re going to get more cooking time in a minute with the meat and marinade.

Add the meat to the skillet with the vegetables, and stir in 1/4 cup of the marinade. Cook until most of the marinade has boiled off but the meat and vegetables are still slightly wet, about 5 minutes. Season to taste.

Remove from the heat and serve immediately with tortillas (just scoop some of the meat and vegetables onto a tortilla, and eat it up!)

Tips and suggestions:

  • Skirt steak is the traditional cut of beef used for fajitas, but you can certainly go with what you’ve got.
  • If you’re using store-bought tortillas, you can warm them first. On the stove in a clean skillet pre-heated to low heat, heat the tortillas for 30 seconds on each side. Alternatively, you can heat them in the microwave oven: rub a few drops of water on each side, then stack them on a plate with a paper towel in between each tortilla. Microwave them for 30-60 seconds until warm (the exact cooking time will depend upon your microwave oven).
  • Feel free to mess with the marinade ingredients. I’ve seen recipes that just call for lime juice, oil, and store-bought “taco seasoning.” I’ve seen others with a long list of ingredients, including red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper, and various herbs. Make it as spicy (or non-spicy) as you and your family like.
  • Be careful with what you do with the marinade after the meat comes out with it — since it’s been co-mingled with raw meat, it’s not safe for consumption until it’s been thoroughly cooked. If you want to use it as a sauce to drizzle on the finished fajitas, then add all of it to the skillet (not just 1/4 cup) and let it cook for a bit, but stop cooking the fajitas before all the liquid boils off. Then you can just spoon it out of the skillet at the end.
  • It’s certainly not required, but you can top your fajitas with all sorts of things: chopped cilantro, pico de gallo, sour cream., etc.
  • Here’s a recipe for making your own tortillas.