To 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!
Like 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!
Toni, 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!
A 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, 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 obscure to everyone except the vaqueros, butchers and their families.
A 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.
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 ~
~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.
~ Step 2. Place skirt steak in a 1-gallon food storage bag, folding it to fit. 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.
~ 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).
~ 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).
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.
~ 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 away and do not not overcook.
Read the following carefully.
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.
~ 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 16, 8"-round flour tortillas.
I always suggest performing quality control prior to serving:
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
Cook'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)