Week to week, I find myself falling back on easy Mexican-inspired recipes for a variety of reasons. Tex-Mex cuisine often begins with a foundation of convenient pantry staples like beans, rice, corn, and tortillas that form a blank canvas for bold spices and a wide variety of vegetables and meats.
And because one size seldom fits all, toppings that are served on the side and a choice of spice level from mild to hot offers a little something for everyone.
Fajitas are classic Tex-Mex and have long been a family favorite. Their origin is pretty interesting, too. History credits Mexican ranch workers living in Texas in the 1930s for what is now a mainstream dish.
When a steer was butchered, the ranch hands were given the least desirable parts to eat for partial payment of their wages. As a result, the workers got creative with a tough cut of beef known as the skirt steak. (The original translation of the word “fajitas” actually meant, “little strips of meat cut from the beef skirt”.) They pounded the meat, marinated it in lime juice, grilled and sliced it, and then ate the meat on tortillas with salsa and other condiments.
The Round-Up Restaurant in South Texas is widely credited with transitioning fajitas from campfire obscurity to mainstream menu fare in 1969 when it began serving grilled skirt steak on a sizzling skillet alongside warm tortillas and an assortment of condiments – guacamole, pico de gallo, and grated cheese – for making tacos.
Today the sizzling skillet is a popular restaurant choice and the term fajitas has come to describe almost any sort of grilled meat (frequently beef, chicken, or shrimp) and vegetables cut into thin strips and wrapped in a flour or corn tortilla.
The best news is that this flavor-packed meal can be pulled off at home with ease. Much of the simple prep can be done in advance and the actual cook time is short. The flavor comes from spice rack staples that give the meat—I often use chicken—incredible flavor.
If the skillet isn’t scraped clean, you can simply reheat the mixture for another quick meal. Or try making a quesadilla with the leftovers and some shredded cheese. Alternatively, use the extras for a dinner salad, crumbling some tortilla chips over top for a Tex-Mex option to croutons.
The cook time for this dinner is short, making it well suited to busy weeknights.
Because my family could eat this meal every week, I like to mix several batches of the spices and store them in small jars for added ease whenever the craving strikes. The veggies may also be prepped earlier in the day or even the night before. Simply store them in a bag or an airtight container in the fridge.
- 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper*
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
- 2 tablespoons canola or olive oil, divided use
- 1-1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into thin strips
- 2 large sweet bell peppers, cut into 1/4-inch slices (I like one green and one red pepper)
- 1 small yellow onion (or half a large), thinly sliced from root to tip
- 8-10 (6-inch) corn or flour tortillas, warmed
- Optional for serving: lime wedges, shredded cheddar cheese, salsa, guacamole or sliced avocado, sour cream, chopped cilantro, sliced jalapeños
- In a large zipper-top bag, combine all of the spices, and then add the lime juice and 1 tablespoon of the oil. (This will create more of a wet rub than a liquidy marinade.) Mix well, add the chicken, seal the bag, and then shake the chicken around to evenly coat in the spice mixture. Refrigerate for at least an hour or two, if possible, and up to 6-8 hours.
- In a 12-inch skillet (cast iron works well) heated over medium-high, sauté the peppers and onions in the remaining tablespoon of oil until crisp-tender, about 6-7 minutes. (If you prefer the onions to be cooked down more than the peppers, sauté them for 2-3 minutes before adding the peppers.) Remove to a plate.
- In the same skillet, cook the chicken over medium-high heat for 3-5 minutes or until no longer pink. Precise cooking time will depend on how thinly the chicken is sliced. Return the pepper mixture to the pan for just long enough to heat through, another minute or so.
- Spoon the chicken mixture down the center of the warm tortillas. Top with cheese, salsa, guacamole, etc., and then fold over and enjoy.
- *This amount of cayenne pepper doesn’t make the fajitas very spicy, but feel free to reduce, omit, or increase as desired. As a general rule of thumb, twice the amount of red pepper flakes may be substituted for an equal level of heat (so in this case, 1/2 teaspoon of red pepper flakes).
These flavor-packed wraps come together in a snap and always get rave reviews. If you enjoy the meal, mix up several batches of the spice mixture and store in small jars for quicker meal prep later.
History source: Austin Chronicle, March 4, 2005