In the 1930’s, cattle ranchers on the vast ranch lands of South and West Texas inadvertently began one of the most popular traditions in Western cuisine. The ranchers would often allow beef to be butchered for the workers during round-ups and drives. Unwanted parts such as the head, hide, and trimmings (including pieces known now as “skirt steak”) were given to the Mexican cowboys. The vacqueros would use these pieces to create many different meals including menudo, barbacoa de cabeza, and what we now know as fajitas. They would slice and marinate the unwanted skirt steak, grill it over an open fire, and fold it up into a tortilla with beans and whatever vegetables they had. Over time, adventurous American cowboys sampled the meal and soon the tradition of using up the skirt steak for fajitas took off. (Only the most adventurous cowboys sampled the menudo and barbequed head and those two meals were left in the dust of comparative obscurity.)
Fajitas are now one of the most popular dishes in Mexican restaurants across the country. Little do diners realize that their $20 platter was once considered scrap and has its origins in Texas. No matter how or where it originated it can’t be argued that this one-time “peasant food” is one of the most delicious meals around (like most “peasant foods”). There are few things that can get my tummy growling and my mouth drooling as quickly as the sizzle of skillet fajitas. In fact, I think the only thing that rivals that tantalizing sound is the absolutely fabulous aroma of fajitas pulled fresh off the grill.
While I am sure there are lots of ways to grill fajitas, hubby and I have worked hard to perfect our method over the years. A good grilled fajita starts with a good, grilled piece of meat. Traditional skirt steak is our cut of choice but chicken, pork, fish, or shrimp are all great options. We start by marinating the meat using our standard Southwest marinade. (Sorry I don’t do measurements too well- just go by sight, smell, taste, and keep mixing it up ’til it’s right). For the marinade combine: lime juice, cumin, black pepper, chili powder, finely chopped garlic, finely minced onion, finely minced cilantro, a little bit of brown sugar, and a little bit of olive oil. Pound the meat out a little bit to get tenderizing started and then pop it in a gallon Ziploc filled with the marinade. Let it sit in the fridge for a few hours (or even over night) squishing it around every now and then so that the marinade really covers the meat. Obviously the meat will be the first thing to go on the grill. Leave it in “steak” size pieces so that it doesn’t over-cook. We like ours cooked to a medium-rare over a medium-high grill heat- no flame just good, hot coals. When it’s done to your liking take it off and cover with aluminum foil. DO NOT cut into your meat right away- all the juicy flavor will drain out and you will be left with dry, flavorless fajita meat.
For us, the key to a good grilled fajita is grilling both the meat and the veggies. There is nothing more disappointing than tasting grilled meat with soggy, un-charred, pan-fried veg. In order to get vegetables grilled to flavorful perfection we slice them fairly thick and put them on skewers. As with Kabobs, the best way to cook fajita veggies is to do only one type of vegetable per stick. This gives you more control over each product and ensures that the items that cook faster do not burn while your slower items are grilling. So peppers, tomatoes, and onions, each get their own skewers. We usually have one for garlic cloves (mmm- grilled garlic crushed right onto your tortilla- delish!) and one for jalapenos or other chilies. Over the years we have had fajitas that included mushrooms, zucchini, and even broccoli (seriously, don’t knock grilled broccoli ’til you’ve tried it). Be creative and use the Basket to guide you. If you would like a little flavor to your veggies you could make some extra marinade and use it to baste as you grill- do NOT use the leftover meat marinade- veggies deserve their own! We are purists and really like the flavor of the veggies. Their sweetness is enhanced and outsides are caramelized through the grilling process so they can definitely stand on their own.
Once the veggies are done you can slice the meat and serve up the fajitas. We love to combine all the vegetables and sliced meat in a big bowl so that flavors blend (and so that it’s harder for our carnivorous children to just pick out the meat). Put the filling in those fabulous BB tortillas and top with all the fresh, homemade goodies you can handle- pico de gallo, guacamole, cheese, lettuce, beans, rice, fresh lime, etc.
Grilled fajitas are so mouth-wateringly delicious that I’m sure you cannot imagine having leftovers. I am used to cooking for a small army and hubby often accuses me of cooking way too much. But, there is method in my madness. If I have the grill set up, and he’s doing the work for me, it just makes sense to cook up a little extra for meals the next day. Here are my two favorite ways to use up fajitas. Both are delish whether you’ve planned for leftovers or just lucked out and found yourself with a little something extra.