The Mexican cowboys of west Texas who first turned a cut of a steer tough as boot leather into a meal would be hard-pressed to recognize today’s tonier versions.
Their fajitas consisted of the scrap meat of a steer, seared over the campfire and wrapped in tortillas. Ask for fajitas in Mexico City and you will probably be directed to the nearest lingerie store, says the American Dialect Society. That’s because in Spanish, faja means “girdle” and fajita means “little girdle” or “little belt.” It’s the same piece of meat we call skirt steak in English.
“The meal was simple, the beef naked,” says Michael Ludwig, the creator of Texmex.net, a Web site devoted to a cuisine that blends Texas cowboy and Mexican. “Theirs was a survival meal, nothing like what we now call fajitas.”
Today, the term fajitas describes just about anything served rolled up in a soft flour tortilla, from shrimp to squash. This once no-frills vaquero (cowboy) meal is now seasoned with chiles and citrus and paired with slivers of onion, chiles and peppers.
Despite its radical remake, this Tex-Mex staple’s appeal has grown in gigantic leaps since its creation in the late 1930s.
“Restaurants have done a lot to popularize fajitas, and now home cooks are discovering what the Texas cowboys knew years ago: They are a quick and flavorful meal that can be grilled in less than 15 minutes,” says Amy Ahrensdorf, chef for SunWest Appliance Distributing Showroom in Tempe.
The key is combining the right balance of flavors, from tongue-burning strips of chile to tangy lime marinade, she says. No one flavor should overpower the others.
For beef, the marinade should include acid ingredients such as lime juice to tenderize the meat. The best fajitas are made from meat marinated for up to 24 hours. Great marinades can include packaged seasoning, salad dressing and tequila.
“The glory of fajitas is that you can make them simple or elaborate, depending on whether they are for a quick midweek meal or for entertaining,” Ahrensdorf says.
Leftovers? Slice last night’s beef, chicken, pork or roasted vegetables and reheat on the grill for fajitas.
“I tell busy families that not only are they easy to make, but cleanup is a snap because there are no pots and pans,” she says.
According to purists, the only true fajitas are made from skirt steak. And the meal is 100 percent Tex-Mex, not Mexican.
“So many people like to claim fajitas as their own, but this meal belongs to Texas,” says Elizabeth Blakeley, author of “The San Antonio Tex-Mex Cookbook” (Caxton Press, 2000, $11.95). “We’re just happy to share it with everyone.”
With fresh meat or leftovers, fajitas can be simple or elaborate. And there are no pans to wash.
The Arizona Republic
Grilled Chicken Fajitas with Mango Chipotle Sauce
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons lime juice, freshly squeezed
1/4 cup cilantro
1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper, plus 1/4 teaspoon salt
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, pounded to even thickness
1 large red onion, sliced into thick slices
2 large poblano peppers, sliced into 1/4-inch slices
4 fajita-size tortillas
Mix garlic, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 3 tablespoons lime juice, 1/4 cup cilantro and 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper in bowl. Pour marinade into a resealable plastic bag. Add chicken breasts and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours.
For vegetables, combine red onions and peppers into a large bowl. Toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Can be prepared 3 hours ahead. Refrigerate until ready to grill.
Place a portable grill or nonstick grilling sheet on a gas grill for the vegetables. Preheat griddle and grill on high heat for five minutes, with hood down. Reduce grill area heat to low and grill chicken over direct heat about five minutes per side, or until cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Remove chicken from grill, cover with foil and let stand for five minutes. Toss vegetables onto the hot griddle or grill sheet surface and cook, hood down, until onions and peppers are soft and lightly browned. Use tongs to turn occasionally.
Mango chipotle sauce
1 large mango, peeled, seeded and puréed
1 1/4 teaspoons canned chipotle chile in adobo, puréed
1 teaspoon chopped cilantro
1/2 teaspoon lime juice, freshly squeezed
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
Purée mango and place 1/2 cup in a small bowl. Add chipotle puree, cilantro, lime juice, brown sugar and salt to taste. Mix until combined and set aside. Can be prepared 3 hours ahead. Refrigerate until serving.
To assemble, heat tortillas in microwave between sheets of paper towels for about 15 seconds. Slice chicken into 1/2-inch strips and place on half of each tortilla. Add 1/4 of the cooked vegetables and spoon on 1/4 of the mango chipotle sauce. Fold and serve.
Makes 4 servings.
Source: Tempe chef Amy Ahrensdorf
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1 pound pork tenderloin, cut into strips 1/2-inch wide and 2 inches long
1 small onion, sliced
8 whole-wheat flour tortillas, about 8 inches in diameter, warmed in the microwave
1/2 cup shredded sharp Cheddar
4 medium tomatoes, diced
4 cups shredded lettuce
1 cup salsa
Prepare a hot fire in a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill or broiler to medium high or 400 degrees. In a small bowl, stir together the chili powder, oregano, paprika, coriander and garlic powder. Dredge the pork pieces in the seasonings, coating completely.
Place the pork strips and onion in a cast-iron pan or grill basket. Grill or broil at medium-high heat, turning several times, until browned on all sides, about 5 minutes.
To serve, spread an equal amount of pork strips and onions on each tortilla. Top each with 1 tablespoon cheese, about 2 tablespoons tomatoes, 1/2 cup shredded lettuce and 2 tablespoons salsa. Fold in both sides of each tortilla up over the filling, then roll to close. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.
Source: Mayo Clinic
Ask the butcher to trim the excess fat and tenderize the skirt steak.
1 large beef skirt steak, approximately 3 pounds
2 tablespoons fajita seasoning
1 cup yellow onion, diced
2 tablespoons fresh garlic, chopped fine
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped fine
8 ounces zesty Italian salad dressing
1 large green bell pepper, cored, seeded and sliced into 1/8-inch slices
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced into 1/8-inch slices
1 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups mesquite chips
8 flour tortillas
Pico de gallo, picante sauce, guacamole or sour cream, as needed (optional)
Sprinkle the fajita seasoning on both sides of the shirt steak. Gently push the seasonings into the meat with the palm of your hand.
Combine the Italian dressing, 1 cup onion, garlic and cilantro in a bowl and whisk to combine well. Pour into a large container with a locking top or a large plastic zip-top bag. Add the skirt steaks and make sure all areas of the skirt steak get coated with the marinade. Cut the skirt steak in half if necessary.
Marinate the skirt steaks at least 4 hours or overnight. To cook the fajitas, light a mound of charcoal briquettes or a gas grill. Place mesquite chips into a bowl and cover with water. Soak at least 15 minutes.
Remove the skirt steak from the marinade. Drain the water from the mesquite chips and add the chips to the hot coals. Place the steak on the grill and sear about 2 minutes. Turn over and repeat searing. Move steak to indirect heat, cover and cook approximately 8 to 10 minutes on each side. When done, remove the steaks. Cover and keep warm.
Place a grill mat on the grill. In a mixing bowl, toss onion and pepper slices with olive oil. Place on grill mat and cook, turning occasionally, for about 5 minutes or until onions and peppers begin to char. Meanwhile, cut skirt steak against the grain into 1/4 inch thick strips. Mix steak with onions and peppers. Serve immediately with tortillas and any optional garnishes.
Makes 4 servings.