Fajitas (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.
Unlike 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!
Even 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!
Joe 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 sliced 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":
Without 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.
6 tablespoons corn oil
6 tablespoons ~ Mels Homemade Tex-Mex-Style Fajita Seasoning ~, substitute at your own risk*
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)
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.
~ 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.
~ Step 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.
~ 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.
Note: 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:
Special Equipment List: kitchen shears; cutting board; chef's knife; large slotted spoon; small gravy ladle; 12" skillet, cast iron or nonstick
Cook'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)