Fajitas. The recipe that put a Mexican restaurant in every strip mall in America.* Really, Fajitas are Tex-mex, a blend of styles born from the Norteno border of Mexico and the Southwestern border of the US, where the cooking doesn't let a little thing like a line on a map stop it.
The holy trinity of Tex-mex cooking: Fajitas, Margaritas, and tortilla chips with salsa. I'm getting hungry just typing this.
I learned a fascinating fajita marinade from Robb Walsh in The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook. There are two surprise ingredients in the marinade, that don't sound very Mexican - Pineapple and Soy Sauce. Soy sauce is full of umami, which I've talked about before; it adds extra beefiness to the steak.
Pineapple juice is the really interesting part - it contains an enzyme, bromelain, which is proteolytic (that is, it breaks down protein).
* I had to double check that sentence with my wife, the chemist.
Pineapple juice tenderizes the tough cuts of meat that are used in fajitas; skirt steak (fajita, in Spanish)*, flank steak, chuck steak, or whatever cut of beef your local Mexican joint can get cheap from their supplier.
*That's right - real fajitas are skirt steak. If I make skirt steak fajitas, I'm being redundant. If I make chicken fajitas, I'm making "chicken beef skirt steaks." But, c'mon...fajitas have taken on a whole new meaning north of the border.
Unlike most marinades, which don't penetrate the meat, this one will really do the job...to the point of turning the meat to mush if marinated for too long. I wouldn't marinate this for more than a couple of hours. This is a marinade that really works. It results in tender beef, sweetened by the pineapple, salted by the soy sauce, with a hit of lime. Combine it with grilled peppers and onions, wrap it in a tortilla, and top with some salsa. Oh...I need to go buy some more pineapple juice.
Recipe: Grilled Fajitas
Adapted From: Robb Walsh The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook
- Grill (I used my Weber Summit; the extra space you get on a really big grill helps with this recipe. Not that I'm bragging or anything. Here is the current version of my grill.)
Marinade (brinerade, really):
- ¾ cup pineapple juice
- ¾ cup soy sauce
- Zest and juice of 1 lime (zest it with a microplane; that's the easiest way)
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 Flank Steak (roughly 1.5 lbs, and 1" thick, or substitute skirt steaks or chuck shoulder steaks)
- 3 bell peppers (red, green, or a mix of both)
- 1 large onion
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 serrano or jalapeno peppers
- 20 to 24 flour tortillas (fajita size, of course)
1. Marinate the beef: Combine the marinade ingredients, then put ½ cup aside for later. Pour the rest of the marinade into a gallon zip-top bag, add the flank steak, squeeze out all the air, and let soak at room temperature for 30 minutes to 2 hours. (Don't go past 2 hours, or the pineapple will make the meat too soft.)
2. Prep the vegetables: Cut the peppers into planks; I do this by buying peppers with four distinct sides, and cutting down the sides to separate them from the core. Cut the onion into ½" thick slices. Sprinkle the peppers and onions with the 1 teaspoon salt.
3. Prepare the grill: Set the grill up for cooking at direct medium heat. For my Weber Summit, this means turning all the burners to high, and letting the grill preheat for ten to fifteen minutes. Once the grill is preheated, I brush the grates clean with my grill brush, then turn the burners down to medium. (For a charcoal grill, light a chimney ¾ full of charcoal, and wait for it to be covered with ash, then spread it evenly over half the grill grate.)
4.Grill it: Take the flank steak out of the marinade, and let any excess marinade drip off. Put the flank steak, pepper planks, onions, and hot peppers on the grill. Cook (with the lid closed if using a gas grill) for 3 minutes, then flip all the vegetables and rotate the flank steak 90 degrees. Cook for another three minutes, then flip all the vegetables, and flip the flank steak. Cook for another 3 minutes, then flip all the vegetables one last time, and rotate the flank steak 90 degrees. (That is, 12 minutes total cooking time, 6 minutes a side.) Remove the flank steak to a baking dish, and the vegetables to a bowl. Pour half the reserved marinade over the flank steak, and half over vegetables.
5. Toast the tortillas: Brush the grate clean with a grill brush, then lay the tortillas out in a single layer on the grill. Toast for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until slight grill marks appear on the bottom of the tortillas, then flip and toast for another minute, or until the tortillas start to puff up. Wrap the toasted tortillas in a cloth towel, and let rest until ready to serve. (This will probably need to be done in two to three batches to fit all the tortillas on the grill.)
6. Slice the ingredients: Let the ingredients rest for 10 minutes (while toasting the tortillas), tossing the vegetables and turning the steak a few times to coat them with the marinade. Remove the hot peppers from the bowl, peel off their blackened skin, slice thin, and move to a small serving dish. Remove the bell peppers and onions, slice ½ inch thick, then put back in the bowl and toss with the marinade. Remove the flank steak from the dish, cut in half lengthwise, then slice crosswise as thin as possible. Move the sliced flank steak a serving platter, pour any juices from the cutting board over the steak.
7. Serve: Serve, passing the tortillas, steak, hot peppers, and pepper/onion mix for people to assemble into fajitas.
Chicken Fajitas: Replace the flank steak with 1.5lbs to 2lbs of boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
Real fajitas: To be authentic, use skirt steak instead of flank steak, and only cook for 2 minutes before rotating and flipping (4 minutes a side, 8 minutes total) because skirt steak is thinner than flank steak.
You probably have your own favorite toppings for fajitas, but mine are: salsa, sour cream, shredded lettuce, and a squeeze of fresh lime. My kids love generic "shredded Mexican cheese" from the grocery store, but I prefer crumbled Mexican queso.
For this much cooking, It helps to have a grill with a lot of surface area like my Weber Summit. Otherwise, grill this recipe in batches. Start with the beef, then move on to the peppers and onions, and finally soften the tortillas. This also helps if you are cooking on a charcoal grill, because the heat will gradually decrease as you cook. It helps to cook the beef hotter than the vegetables, and the vegetables hotter than the tortillas.
What do you think? Questions? Other ideas? Leave them in the comments section below.
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