Why is it so hard to find good fajitas?
That’s a question I found myself asking recently on a fajitas crawl in Los Angeles, where I live, to check in on that essential and once fashionable Tex-Mex dish. The platters that arrived at my table never varied: Grilled strips of skirt steak, chicken or shrimp, usually overcooked, with seared onions and peppers that were greasy and underseasoned. Alongside were the predictable bowls of grated yellow cheddar cheese, sour cream, guacamole and salsa.
They were a far cry from the fajitas I used to eat at backyard cookouts with Mexican-American families in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas in the 1970s.
My friends would grill cumin- and chile-rubbed skirt steak, at that time a cheap cut, slice it thin and serve it on fresh flour tortillas. They cooked onions and chiles, sweet peppers and sometimes corn on the same grill until the vegetables were charred, and served them with the meat on the warm tortillas, with grated cheddar and crumbled queso fresco, fresh tomato salsa and guacamole mashed in molcajetes, mortar and pestles made from volcanic rock. A few Tex-Mex restaurants served fajitas, but the dish was local, far from mainstream.
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Fajitas had been around on both sides of the border for as long as ranchers in South and West Texas had been using immigrant Mexican laborers during roundups. The ranchers partly paid their cowboys with cheap parts of the steer: heads, entrails and trimmings, which included skirt steaks. They grilled the steaks over the camp fire, and ate them in warm tortillas.
The real breakthrough, according to Austin Chronicle food writer Virginia B. Wood, came in 1982, when a chef put Sizzling Fajitas on his menu at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Austin. The restaurant became the most profitable in the Hyatt chain, and fajitas became a nationwide phenomenon.
The price of skirt steak skyrocketed. My butcher sells it today for $18.49 a pound.
I decided to head into my kitchen and change things up. I wanted my version to have more flavor and less grease than restaurant fajitas. I used a cumin-chili rub for the beef and put the vegetables are on equal footing with the proteins.
Feel free to mix and match vegetables and proteins, and to play around with other vegetables, for this exuberant one-dish meal.
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground
1 teaspoon chipotle or ancho chile powder
1 teaspoon salt, more to taste
1 1/4 pounds flank or skirt steak
Zest of 1 lime (2 teaspoons)
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 large red or yellow onion, halved and sliced
2 red bell peppers (or 1 red and 1 orange or yellow), seeded and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 green bell pepper, seeded and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 jalapeño or 2 serrano chiles, minced
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
4 large flour or 8 corn tortillas
1 teaspoon grapeseed or canola oil
1 romaine heart, cut crosswise into 1-inch wide pieces
Salsa fresca (see recipe) and queso fresco, for sprinkling
Combine 2 teaspoons ground cumin, the chile powder and 1 teaspoon salt. With a sharp knife, cut shallow crosshatched incisions across top and bottom surfaces of steak. Rub spice mix all over surface. (Wear gloves; the chili powder is hot.) Place steak in a resealable freezer bag.
In a small bowl, whisk together lime juice and zest, 1/4 cup olive oil, Worcestershire sauce and half the garlic. Reserve 2 tablespoons marinade and pour the rest into the bag with steak. Refrigerate at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours, massaging the bag periodically to redistribute marinade. Refrigerate reserved marinade if cooking the next day.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring, until they soften and begin to color, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in bell peppers and chili. Cook, stirring, until peppers begin to soften, about 3 minutes.
Lower heat to medium, add remaining garlic and cumin, and salt to taste. Cook, stirring often, until peppers are nicely seared, softened and beginning to caramelize, 5 to 8 minutes.
Pour in reserved 2 tablespoons marinade and scrape bottom of pan with a wooden spoon. Stir in half the cilantro. Taste and adjust seasoning. Remove from heat but keep warm.
Wrap tortillas in foil and warm in a low oven, or wrap in a towel and warm in a steamer or in the microwave.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, or prepare a medium-hot grill. Remove meat from marinade and discard marinade. Pat meat dry with paper towels. If using a skillet, heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in skillet. (If your skillet is not large enough for the steak, cut it in half and cook in batches.) Cook for 3 to 4 minutes per side. Meat should be medium-rare. Remove to a cutting board, cover with foil and let sit for 10 minutes. Cut across the grain into 1/2- to 3/4-inch wide strips.
Arrange lettuce on a platter, then place steak next to lettuce. Tip juices from cutting board over meat and sprinkle with remaining cilantro. Serve vegetables on the same platter or separately, along with warm tortillas, salsa and crumbled queso fresco.
Yield: 4 servings
1/4 small white or red onion, minced
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 pound fresh, ripe tomatoes, finely chopped
1 to 3 jalapeño or serrano chilies, to taste, minced (and seeded, if you would like a milder salsa)
4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, more to taste
1 to 3 teaspoons fresh lime juice (optional)
Salt to taste
Place minced onion in a bowl and cover with cold water. Add vinegar and let sit for 5 minutes or longer. Drain and rinse with cold water.
In a medium bowl, combine remaining ingredients and stir in onions. (If your tomatoes are full of flavor, you won’t need lime juice.) Ideally, let stand at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes before eating so that flavors will blend and ripen.
Yield: 2 cups