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07/21/2014

~ Tequila-Lime Skirt-Steak Fajitas (Tacos al Carbon)~

IMG_8667To a carnivore like me, tacos al carbon (skirt steak fajitas) are as close to food perfection as Tex-Mex fare gets.  They are the very first fajita I ever sunk my teeth into and the very first fajita I learned to make (even before fajita fever hit our nation during the 1980's).  The years were 1974 thru 1979 and our neighbors in our very first Happy Valley apartment were a Texas cowboy and his beautiful Mexican-American wife (who hailed from San Antonio):  Tom and Toni (Antoinette). I was only in my twenties and had absolutely no previous experience with any Tex-Mex food (Tom called it Texican), but, that changed in a hurry and I learned at the hands of a master!     

IMG_8374Like most people in their twenties and thirties, we four partied heartily on weekends (and even some weeknights).  We rarely felt the need to go anywhere other than our two apartments and we never gave cooking and eating at midnight or later a second thought either. Tacos al carbon was often one of Toni's late-night offerings, and, as per her stories, she prepared them as close to how her grandmother in Mexico did -- short of a campfire.

Toni learned a few things from me in my kitchen too (chicken fried rice was one of my late night offerings, and, she loved to help me make pirogi and stuffed cabbage), but, I most certainly got the better deal. This taco press was a birthday gift from her, and, yes folks, when we two gals cooked Texican, we made our own flour and corn tortillas!

IMG_8163Toni, who was born and raised in San Antonio, spent a great deal of time (as a child) in Mexico with her grandmother and great-aunts.  Toni explained that authentic tacos al carbon is a simple meal of the poor people: marinated, grilled skirt steak gets cut into strips and wrapped in flour tortillas with no fanfare and few garnishes.  Her grandmother served hers with grilled or sauted onions (because onions sweeten as they caramelize without the need for elaborate seasonings), and, never meddled with the flavor of the steak by adding bell peppers to the mixture.

In less than 10 minutes, Toni would have a skirt steak marinating in a mixture of lime juice, plenty of minced garlic, chopped cilantro, and, a couple of shots of tequila (one for her/one for me).  Without measuring, she threw in some chile powder, cayenne, cumin (the "3 C's of Texican cooking) and salt.  Her dry spices eventually became the base flavors for ~ Mel's Homemade Tex-Mex-Style Fajita Seasoning ~.  Just click on the Related Article link below to get my recipe! 

IMG_8261A bit of fajita (fa-hee-tah) history: Fajitas were originally named "tacos al carbon", with "al carbon" being the Spanish phrase for "cooking over coals".  They were served ready-to-eat-with-the-hands by wrapping strips of unpretentious and cheap (or free) skirt steak, cooked directly over a campfire or grill, in a flour or corn tortilla.  "Faja" the Spanish word for "strip, band, IMG_8258sash or belt", with "ita" added to the end of it, means "a little strip, band, sash or belt".  The dish dates back to cattle ranching life along the Rio Grande Valley regions of the Texas-Mexico border in the 1930's. Throwaway items (heads, entrails and meat trimmings) were given to the Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) as part of their pay, resulting in some of the first Tex-Mex border dishes:  IMG_8254barbacoa de cabeza (head barbecue), menudo (tripe stew) and, fajitas/arracheras (grilled skirt steak).  Because of the limited number of skirts per animal, the meat wasn't available for sale, so, for years it remained obscure to everyone except the vaqueros, butchers and their families.

BeefCutPlateA bit about the last three photos: The 18"-24" skirt steak is the diaphram muscle of the cow and is cut from the plate.  There is a tough membrane attached to it, which is almost always removed during butchering, which makes trimming the  fat really easy.  Photo #1:  Top of skirt trimmed of fat cap.  Photo #2: Bottom of skirt.  Photo #3.  Vacuum-sealed, folded-up skirt steak.

IMG_83861 1/2-2  pound skirt steak (Note: The steaks I purchase come fully-trimmed and this is their weight after trimming.)

1/2  cup lime juice, 3-4 limes

1/4  cup tequila

6  large garlic cloves

1  large japeno pepper, seeded and cut into quarters

1/4  cup chopped cilantro

2  tablespoons ~ Mel's Homemade Tex-Mex-Style Fajita Seasoning ~

IMG_8387 IMG_8394 IMG_8396 IMG_8405~Step 1.  In work bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade, place the garlic, japapeno and cilantro.  Put lid on processor and using 25-30 rapid on-off pulses, mince the vegetables.  Open lid, and, using a large rubber spatula, scrape down sides of the bowl.  Add the fajita seasoning, lime juice and tequila.  With the motor running, process for about 15 seconds.

IMG_8433 IMG_8417~ Step 2. Place skirt steak in a 1-gallon food storage bag, folding it to IMG_8425fit.  Add marinade to bag and squeeze it around to make sure the steak, even between the folds, is coated.  Marinate for 2 hours at room temperature or 6-8 hours in the refrigerator.

Tip from Mel:  Placing the bag of skirt steak in a 1-quart measuring container will make the liquid rise up over the meat, alleviating the need to re-toss the mixture during the marination process.

IMG_8442 IMG_8440~ Step 3.  If you have marinated your skirt steak in the refrigerator for 6-8 hours, return it to room temperature prior to cooking it, about 1-1 1/2 hours.  Prior to putting the skirt steak on the grill pan, slice 1 1/2 pounds of yellow or sweet onion into half-moon shapes (about 2 large onions after peeling).

IMG_8463 IMG_8449~ Step 4.  In a 12" skillet, heat 4 tablespoons corn oil.  Stir in 2 tablespoons Mel's Fajita Seasoning.  Add the onions, increase heat to medium-high and saute until onions are softened but crunchy in their centers. about 5 minutes.  Do not overcook.  You can thank me later.  Remove from heat and set aside (do not cover).

IMG_8479< This is a very creepy photo!

IMG_8470~ Step 5. Lightly spray grill pan with no-stick cooking spray and place over medium-high heat for about 1 minute.

Lift the steak from the marinade, allowing ample time for excess liquid to drizzle back into the bag.   Using a few paper towels, lightly dab the drippy tailend of excess moisture, but do not wipe surface of steak clean or dry.  Place the steak on hot grill pan.  Discard marinade. 

IMG_8510 IMG_8493~ Step 6. Grill steak on first side until bottom is sizzling and grill marks are prominent, about 4 minutes.  Using a fork and the aid of a spatula, flip steak over and grill on second side about 3 minutes, until sizzling and grill marks are prominent.  Yes, it really does cook that quickly.  Don't walk IMG_8539away and do not not overcook.

IMG_8523~ Step 7. Transfer steak to a cutting board and rest 8-10 minutes.

Read the following carefully.

Slicing instructions:

Cut the length of the skirt steak, with the grain, into 4 even-sized pieces. Give each piece a L or R quarter turn, and, holding your knife at a 30 degree angle, cut each piece, against the grain, into thin slices.

IMG_8585 IMG_8579~ Step 8. Return skillet of onions to stovetop and briefly reheat/warm over medium heat, about 1-1 1/2 minutes.  Add the sliced steak.  Using two large spoons, toss as you would a salad. Remove from heat and rest about 3-5 minutes.  Serve warm wrapped in 168"-round flour tortillas.

I always suggest performing quality control prior to serving: 

IMG_8595Tequila-Lime Skirt-Steak Fajitas (Tacos al Carbon):  Recipe yields 16, 8"fajitas or 4 servings.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; food processor; large rubber spatula; 1-gallon food storage bag; paper towels; grill pan, preferably a large, double-burner sized one, 18" x 12 1/2"; fork; metal spatula

PICT0029Cook's Note:  These simply superb steak fajitas deserve a simply superb side-dish, and sweet corn is just the ticket.  Click into Categories 4, 15 or 20 to get my instructions for ~ How to:  Roast or "Bake" Sweet Corn in the Oven ~!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014) 

07/18/2014

~ Tex-Mex Campstove or Stovetop Chicken Fajitas ~

IMG_8131Fajitas (fa-hee-tas) -- oh so delicious and oh so easy to make too -- I never had to call my three boys or Joe to the dinner table twice on fajita night.  That was back in the mid-to-latter 1980's when close-to-authentic versions of fajitas surfaced nationwide on good Tex-Mex restaurant menus.  The poor and unpretentious fajita had 'gone Hollywood' --  flamboyant skillets of sizzling steak or chicken served tableside with warm flour tortillas, sauted vegetables and mounds of condiments were a delicious and fun dining experience for the entire family.  Like a wild fire in a dry forest, this meal spread from restaurant to kitchen tables, including mine.  I single out the 1980's because that was indeed the heyday for fajitas.  Why?  By the 90's, like their cousins the burrito and the taco:  they became just another dish of dumbed-down American fast food.

IMG_8163Unlike many mothers of that decade, one of the things I did not buy into were  those 1-ounce, salt-laden, store-bought seasoning packets -- I refused to use them, even for convenience.  I dabbled in making my own blend based upon what I knew to be true and taught hands-on (not told to me by a food manufacturer via the back of a foil envelope).  Just click on the Related Article link below to get ~ Mels Homemade Tex-Mex-Style Fajita Seasoning ~ recipe.  This all-purpose mildly-spiced blend is perfect for chicken, pork, shrimp or traditional skirt steak fajitas!

IMG_8242Even if you are using your own seasoning blend (which is certainly your prerogative), my post is full of fajita history, which you probably should know before making them for the first time.  For example: "faja" is the Spanish word for "strip, band, sash or belt", and, with an "ita" added to the end of it, it means "a little strip, band, sash or belt".  Back in the 1930's cattle ranchers on the Texas/Mexican border would give throwaway animal trimmings (skirt steak) to the Mexican cowboys (vaqueros) as part of their pay. They would grill this thin, flat meat over a fire, cut it into strips, wrap the strips in tortillas and eat them for breakfast, lunch or dinner.  

Once fajitas got known outside of the isolated cattle ranches of the Rio Grande Valley, Americans started making them with chicken, pork, shrimp or all-vegetable combinations. These variations require cutting some ingredients into bite-sized pieces (rather than strips), but whenever possible, alway try to stick to script and "stick to the strips"!   

In my kitchen, chicken fajitas came first, steak fajitas came later!

IMG_8254Joe and I did a great deal of traveling back in the 1980's, so, by the time I brought my version of authentic fajitas via the ones I had tasted on Southwestern restaurant menus into my kitchen, I was well-educated on what they should look and taste like.  That being said, I almost always made them with IMG_8261sliced chicken strips, rather than the traditional skirt steak.  Why?  Back then skirt steak was sold mostly to restaurants and only occasionally trickled into my local butcher shop. Chicken breasts were always available to me -- I had to special order skirt steak (or get lucky).  It's an entirely different story nowadays. Skirt steak is  everywhere, and, I'll be marinating it and sharing that fajita recipe with you next.

In my kitchen I cook chicken fajitas differently than steak fajitas.

When I'm using skirt steak, I marinate the meat for several hours, grill or pan-sear the entire piece until it is rare, cut it into thin strips then serve it all at once.  It's quick, easy and reliable.  

When you trade skirt steak in for chicken, it's "a different animal":  

IMG_9593Without getting too technical, boneless, skinless chicken breasts are randomly sized, meaning they all cook differently.  On the grill, it's almost impossible to get them all to cook to the desired degree of doneness (just cooked through to the center without drying them out) at the same time.  Recipes that solve the problem by pounding them to the same thickness are just plain wrong: that is not the proper texture for a proper fajita, so please don't do it.  Chicken filets/tenders are far superior in texture, and, I highly recommend you use them for fajita making. One other thing, marinating chicken in general is a complete waste of time.  Take it from me, my method takes all the guesswork and stress out of this and the results are wonderful:  moist, juicy, perfectly-cooked perfectly-spiced chicken with crisp-tender colorful vegetables.

IMG_94282 1/2-3  pounds chicken  filets or tenders, cut into bite-sized strips and/or bite-sized pieces

6  tablespoons corn oil

6  tablespoons ~ Mels Homemade Tex-Mex-Style Fajita Seasoning ~, substitute at your own risk*

1  pound yellow or sweet onion, cut into thin (slightly less than IMG_81891/2") bite-sized strips

8  ounces each:  green and red bell peppers, cut into thin (slightly less than 1/2") bite-sized strips

1-2  large jalapeno peppers, seeded and finely diced (optional)

IMG_8181the juice of one large lime

20  8"-round flour tortillas, warmed

condiments of choice:  Spanish rice, refried beans, salsa, guacamole, sour cream, shredded cheddar or Monterey jack cheese and/or chopped cilantro, always served to the side

* I doubt that my fajita spice blend can be substituted equally for those overly-salty seasoning packets.  Each 1-ounce packet contains about 4 tablespoons and instructs you to use 1 packet for each pound of meat.

IMG_9453~ Step 1.  Using a pair of kitchen shears, clip the visible tendon from each filet.  Don't worry about the rest that runs through the center as it is so thin it disappears when cooked.  Cut filets in half, halves into 3-4 strips and pieces.

~ Step 2.  Cut the onion and bell peppers into strips, keeping the onions separate from the peppers. Mince the jalapenos.  Set all aside.

IMG_8193 IMG_8201 IMG_8206 IMG_8215

 

 

 

 

IMG_8218 IMG_8226Step 3.  Heat oil in skillet over medium-high. Stir in seasoning.  Add chicken and saute, stirring constantly, until chicken is turning white, 2-3 minutes.  Add onions and cook until it looks like you have more chicken than onions, 3-4 minutes.

IMG_8238~ Step 4.  Add the bell and jalapeno peppers and continue to saute, stirring almost constantly, until they are cooked through, yet colorful and crunchy, about 4-5 minutes.  Do not overcook. Remove from heat and squeeze the juice of one lime evenly over the top, or, serve with lime wedges for individual portions.

Serve sizzling hot (immediately) with warmed flour tortillas and your favorite condiments to the side.

Mexican1011-1Note:  I place the entire skillet, or individual cast-iron skillets (which is fun), on the table along with bowls of condiments and a stack of warm tortillas so everyone can help themselves.  My family's favorite condiments are refried beans, guacamole, salsa and spicy Spanish saffron rice:

IMG_8275Tex-Mex Campstove or Stovetop Chicken Fajitas:  Recipe yields 16-20, 8" round fajitas, or, 4-6 servings, allowing 3-4 fajitas per person.

Special Equipment List:  kitchen shears; cutting board; chef's knife; large slotted spoon; small gravy ladle; 12" skillet, cast iron or nonstick

6a0120a8551282970b015433345133970cCook's Note:  In the event you are in need of a really good guacamole recipe to serve with your fajitas:  ~ Holy Guacamole!  It's the Second Day of Summer! + (Everything You Need to Know about the Avocado ~ can be found in 1, 4, 8, 10, 13, 14 or 15!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014) 

07/16/2014

~ Mel's Homemade Tex-Mex-Style Fajita Seasoning ~

IMG_8163Fajitas (fa-hee-tahs) were originally named "tacos al carbon" and were served ready-to-eat-with-the-hands by wrapping strips of unpretentious and cheap skirt steak, cooked directly over a campfire or a grill, in a flour or corn tortilla.  "Faja" the Spanish word for "strip, band, sash or belt", with "ita" added to the end of it, means "a little strip, band, sash or belt".  The dish dates back to cattle ranching life along the Rio Grande Valley regions of the Texas-Mexico border in the 1930's.  Throwaway items (heads, entrails and meat trimmings) were given to the Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) as part of their pay, resulting in some of the first Tex-Mex border dishes: barbacoa de cabeza (head barbecue), menudo (tripe stew), and fajitas/arracheras (grilled skirt steak).  Because of the limited number of skirts per animal, the meat wasn't available for sale, so, for years it remained obsure to everyone except the vaqueros, butchers and their families.  

Tx_satFajitas made their first commercial debut in September 1969 when Sonny Falcon, an Austin meat market manager opened a taco concession in rural Kyle.  The same year, Otilia Garza began selling them in her Round-Up Restaurant in Pharr, and, she presented hers on a sizzling platter with warm flour tortillas, condiments and cheese to the side -- for eating taco-style.  In 1973, Ninfa Rodrigues Laurenzo opened Nifa's Restaurant in Houston and sold wrapped "tacos al carbon" called "tacos al la Nifa". 

Thanks to folks like Sonny, Otilia and Nifa,  fajitas did gain in popularity, slowly spreading via rodeos, fairs and festivals into the surrounding Southwestern states of Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona, but, national attention didn't come to  the fajita until 1982.  George Weidmann, a very creative chef at the fancy-schmancy Hyatt Regency Hotel in Austin, recognized the potential for putting a home-grown Tex-Mex dish on his menu.  He put the panache into his presentation too, by serving them on sizzling, attention-grabbing cast-iron skillets.  Thanks to George, this now trendy dish was put on Hyatt Regency menus almost everywhere, and, that is when and how I caught fajita-fever (in their Century Plaza resturant in Los Angeles).  

250px-Former_Chi-Chi's_restaurant_in_Alexandria,_VirginiaBy 1990, fajitas were on the menu of every wanna-be Texican restaurant from sea to shining sea.  I know because I was raising three boys and they always wanted to go Happy Valley's only Tex-Mex eatery at the time, Chi-Chi's (which specialized in overpriced margaritas and marginal food).  In 2003, the chain filed for bankrupcy and closed after being hit with the largest hepatitis A breakout in U.S. history, which was traced to green onions at the Beaver Valley Mall restaurant in Monaca, PA.   Then, things got worse. Jack-in-the-Box and Taco Bell turned a once delicious meal and fun dining experience into an alien form of cardboard tacos and calorie-laden glop!

Meet my all-purpose, homemade fajita seasoning blend!

IMG_8048After having eaten real-deal fajitas on several occasions, once in Los Angeles (mentioned above), once in Tempe, AZ, and twice Texas, it was obvious they are not hard to make -- and, they are not just associated with skirt steak anymore.  They can and are commonly made with chicken, pork or shrimp too, and, I like them all. Depending on the cooking method (which varies) the secret is in the marinade and/or seasoning.  After experiencing real-deal fajitas, what I found out in a hurry was:  I dislike those 1-ounce, salt-laden store-bought seasoning packets -- I refuse to use them even for convenience (for goodness sake, I made this 4-ounce/12 tablespoon container in less than 5 minutes).  Here's my all-purpose fajita seasoning blend:

IMG_80354  tablespoons Santa Fe Seasons Chile Blend*  

4  tablespoons Santa Fe Seasons Six Seasonings*  

1  teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2  teaspoon ground cloves

6  tablespoons ground cumin

1  teaspoon smoked paprika

1  teaspoon sugar

2  tablespoons sea salt

* Note:  Available online at http://www.applecanyongourmet.com/ (Albuquerque, New Mexico). Spice blends in my fajita seasoning?  You betcha.  The chile blend is a melange of pure, dried, and ground chiles along with New Mexico's famous red chiles and contains no salt.  Six Seasonings is a melange of pure and dried herbs, all favorites of Sante Fe, NM.  It would not be cost efficient for me or you to order all of these pure and unadulterated ingredients separately and grind them at home.  For authentic flavor, I highly recommend you give these products a try!

For those of you who don't know, when a product says "chile powder or chile blend", spelled with an "e" at the end, that denotes pure, powdered chile.  When a product says "chili powder or chili blend, with an "i" at the end, that is an Americanized product containing other additives.

IMG_8057~ Step 1.  Measure and place all ingredients, as listed, in a small bowl.  Stir.  You will have 4 ounces or 12 tablespoons.  

IMG_8165Transfer to a 1-cup food storage container, tightly cover, and keep on-hand in a cool, dry pantry for up to 6 months.

Join me over the next couple of days.  I'll be sharing my recipes:  Campstove or Stovetop Chicken or Steak Fajitas! 

IMG_8131Mel's Homemade Tex-Mex-Style Fajita Seasoning:  Recipe yields 4 ounces or 12 tablespoons.

Special Equipment List:  measuring spoons; 1-cup food storage container w/tight-fitting lid

IMG_0250Cook's Note:  For another Tex-Mex recipe, which also uses Sante Fe Seasons Chile Blend and Six Seasoonings,  ~ "White Out" White Chicken 'n Corn Chili Burritos ~ can be found in Categories 13 & 19!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)