By Christine Friesenhahn
No, Chilis did not invent them. In fact, Chilis lacks the capacity to even prepare them properly anymore since they removed their grills several years ago. Nor did Applebee’s. Nor Houston’s.
A Tex-Mex favorite since the 1980’s, Fajitas actually originated in west Texas in the 1930s or 1940s, where they were a staple prepared by Mexican caballeros. That’s cowboys or ranch hands for the semi-lingual. As did so many now popular dishes, fajitas literally were considered peasant food. Discard cuts of beef that were often paid to ranch hands instead of actual money, in exchange for their hard work. This kind of BS is why the rest of us are still having to tolerate labor unions so many years later. If we could all just understand that we don’t pay our employees with crappy cuts of meat….Add to that the fact that most of these ranch hands were not US citizens and could not rightfully protest their payment in meat, they had to make the best of their situation….Henceforth came to be the little bundles of righteous meat-wrapped-in-tortilla munchies known as fajitas (literally translates as “little bundles”).
When the uninitiated began to experience them, explosions of tender delicious flavor, wrapped in tortillas, the cut began showing up on store shelves. Because the peasants can never just have anything for themselves. Once word gets out about what they’ve created with their meager portions, the rest of the world MUST have it. I mean, look at what happened with lobster….
But for a while, skirt steaks were CHEAP. Like .79 a pound cheap. Because as good as they were if you knew how to properly prepare them, if you didn’t you had to just chew them for 3 days, then spit them out. I’ve had better luck eating my loafers.
Luckily, today most skirt steaks will come fully broken down for you at your meat counter, but I will still give you the run down, to make sure you go into battle fully prepared should you encounter the odd skirt steak that is still au naturale.
The three critical components of fajita prep are:
Butchering/breaking the meat down – If there is a large amount of excess fat, you should trim it away. Some fat is fine. Most importantly, you must remove the silver skin. If your butcher has not done this for you, get another butcher and gather a very sharp knife. Starting at one end, carefully start to work the blade between the silver skin and the meat. After you get an inch or so, you should be able to hold the silver skin with your free hand and run the knife the rest of the length of the steak, removing the entire silver skin. If you don’t remove the silver skin, you will do an unpleasant amount of chewing. Your jaw will ache. Your dinner guests will question your culinary skills.
Some people like to pound their skirt steak with a meat mallet. I don’t, but if you have some aggression you need to work out, go ahead. Can’t hurt. Might help.
Marinating – Important for two reasons. It imparts flavor into your meat, and if you use the right kind of marinade, it will start breaking down the meat and tenderize it. Acidic ingredients such as vinegar and citrus juices, and buttermilk are good tenderizers, as are soy sauce and some fruit enzymes. I add a little fat to my marinade, to invite those flames to really kiss my meat once I put it over the direct source. Getcha mind out the guttah.
Cooking – Authentic fajitas will be cooked over flames. But bear in mind that as a tougher cut of meat, low and slow can’t hurt either. You may opt for indirect heat for a longer time, then finish off over direct flame, start over direct flame then low and slow in a crock pot or slow oven (We won’t tell. Pinky swear.) I personally do low and slow over indirect heat, then over direct flame to finish.
Anywho, as most outdoor cookery tends to be, much is personal preference, but here are my recipe basics to get you started.
Also worth noting, the first fajitas on the scene were beef, so that’s what I am covering here. But you can substitute chicken, pork, shrimp, lamb, even veggies if you’d like, as all are pretty common these days.
3 lbs skirt steak* (trimmed as above)
1 C soy sauce
½ C lime juice
½ C olive oil (or oil of choice)
3 cloves smashed garlic
3 t. ground black pepper
2 serrano peppers, roughly chopped
Place meat in a gallon size ziplock bag, and pour remaining ingredients over it. Press as much air out as possible, and seal. Massage so that marinade is touching all surfaces. Marinate in refrigerator 24 hours, the last 4 hours at room temperature.
Prepare your grill. I use mesquite and oak. When my flame has died and the logs are glowing orange, I put the meat on adjacent to (about 6 inches away), but not directly over the heat source. Fifteen minutes on each side. Then I move the meat directly over the coals, and stoke them a bit….let them flame up and get a little char on each side of the meat. Can you smell it? Mmmmmmmmm.
Pull the meat off and let it rest at least 15 minutes before slicing.
Cut AGAINST the grain. For skirt steak, that means cutting the meat long ways. I usually cut into thirds first, then slice thinly against the grain from there.
Fajitas are usually served with flour tortillas, and any or all of the following accompaniments:
Grilled bell peppers