Stuck in a rut? Tried-and-true fajitas always a favorite

January 18, 2019

One of the easiest meals to pull together at the last minute is fajitas (pronounced fa-HEE-tahs). In fact, I keep a package of thin beef sirloin in the freezer for those days when I fail to plan ahead. The meat can be cut into strips while still frozen, and the balance of the dish comes from whatever appropriate vegetables are on hand.

The dish originated in Mexico and its name comes from Spanish “faja” or belt with the diminutive suffix “ita” giving us a word meaning “little belt.” This is a reasonable description of the slender slices of meat, but it also refers to the specific cut of beef, which comes from the diaphragm muscle and resembles a sash or girdle.

Known as skirt steak, this cut is usually tough and needs to be both pounded and marinated for best results. It’s marbled with enough fat to keep it juicy after being quickly seared or grilled, leaving it medium rare. The results will be delicious, but there’s some preparation required for getting a skirt steak into the right shape for cooking.

One side of the meat will have more fat than the other, and much of this should be trimmed, leaving just enough to enhance the flavor. Then, place the meat on a flat surface and start to slice it in half lengthwise horizontally without cutting all the way through. Open the piece like a butterfly and again trim away any excess fat. Next, cut the large piece of meat crosswise into steaks about four inches wide before marinating.

Skirt steak used to be one of the least expensive cuts of beef, but its price has increased to well over $10 a pound, leading many of us to look for substitutes. One popular alternative is flank steak, cut from the abdominal muscles or lower chest of the cow. There are a lot of tough fibers running through this lean cut of beef, so it will need some time soaking in a marinade and should be cut very thinly against the grain.  

To help me make fajitas when I’ve only left myself an hour or so for the meat to marinate, I usually go for sirloin, a lean, well-flavored, moderately tender cut of beef available at an affordable price. Purists will cook the meat whole and then cut it into slices to serve alongside sautéed onions, garlic and peppers. I prefer to cut the meat first, giving me more surface area to absorb the tenderizing acid of lime juice and Balsamic vinegar.

In addition to pounding the meat with a mallet or meat tenderizer and then marinating it for at least an hour, you also want to coat the meat with a complex collection of flavors. I use a spice blend from Penzey’s ( called Fajita Seasoning, a mixture of salt, black pepper, paprika, oregano, cayenne, garlic, celery, basil, nutmeg, cumin, marjoram, thyme and rosemary.

Since the meat takes only a few minutes to cook, I usually slice and sauté the vegetables first. Once the onions are tender, I toss in the peppers and garlic. As you can see from the photo, we only use red, orange and yellow bell peppers, avoiding the more bitter-tasting green ones. Now you’re ready to add the meat.

Push the veggies to one side of the skillet, spill a drop of olive oil in the open space and add the meat along with the marinade liquid. Your kitchen will fill with the sharp aromas of cumin and the bite of pepper as the spices heat. Just as the meat finishes cooking, deglaze the skillet with a splash of beef stock. You’re ready to serve your fajitas.

We don’t always wrap the meat and vegetables in soft tortilla shells, although that’s a popular serving option. Be sure to have some sour cream to tame the spicy heat, shredded cheese for added richness and a squirt of lime to brighten all the flavors. I’ve given you a recipe for the marinade and instructions for the fajitas, which are usually made with beef, but can also be made with boneless chicken breast.

Fajita Marinade*

juice of 2 limes
1 T Balsamic vinegar
1 T olive oil
1 t cumin
1 t paprika
1 t oregano
1/2 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1/2 t garlic powder
1/2 t basil
1/8 t cayenne

Whisk together ingredients and marinate meat for at least one hour under refrigeration. Yield: marinade for 1 1/2 lbs beef or chicken.

*Note: alternatively, use 1 1/2 T fajita seasoning blend to replace the spices.

Basic Fajitas

1 lb marinated beef slices*
1 T olive oil
1 sliced onion
1 sliced red bell pepper
1 sliced yellow bell pepper
1 minced garlic clove
1 t paprika
1 t chili powder
pinch cayenne
1/2 t salt, if desired
1/4 C beef stock

Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Add onions and sauté until translucent. Add peppers and garlic, paprika, chili powder, cayenne and salt. Cook until vegetables are crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in meat and juices from marinade. Cook until meat is medium rare, stirring often, about 4 to 5 minutes.

Add beef stock and stir to deglaze the pan. Serve with soft tortillas, sour cream and grated cheese. Yield: 3 to 4 servings.*Note: choose skirt steak, flank steak or sirloin steak cut against the grain; substitute boneless chicken breast cut into long slices.