I have no idea if fajitas are Mexican food, Tex-Mex food, or something invented by the New York City-based marketing department of a casual-dining chain looking for a way to get rid of less-desirable cuts of beef.
I don’t care. I love ‘em.
I should clarify: I love fajitas when they’re done right. They are, however, almost never done right. Gummy tortillas, overcooked and underseasoned meat, tasteless veggies, and a side platter of undefinable cheese,
rotten sour cream, and limp lettuce do not qualify as “done right.”
This recipe for steak fajitas works best over a grill, but if you have a grill pan, you can fake it, and on a rainy day I have made these on a cast-iron flat-top grill that sits over two burners on my stove. I turned the fan on high and had a fair amount of cleanup to do afterwards, but the steak came out fine.
First up, make the steak rub. This is the same homemade spice mix I use as taco seasoning and just about anywhere else that a chili powder mixture is called for.
2 Tbsp ancho chili powder
2 tsp cumin (toasted & freshly ground)
2 tsp coriander
½-1 tsp cayenne pepper (depends on your heat tolerance)
½ tsp sweet paprika
½ tsp smoked Spanish paprika
1-2 tsp dried oregano
Whisk those together and set aside. There is no salt in the rub, because we’re going to salt the meat before we apply the rub.
For the fajitas, you will need:
1 lb or more of flank or skirt steak (I prefer skirt because it’s cheaper and tastes just as good)
2 red/yellow/orange bell peppers, seeded and cut into strips
1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips
1 onion, sliced very thinly
1 serrano pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1. Trim the meat of any fat you can cut off without destroying the steak. Much of it will pull off with a little encouragement from a knife. You might see silver skin on a flank steak. Make sure you remove it, as it’s very tough and can cause the meat to curl as it cooks. (You can render some fat from the bits you cut off the steaks and cook with it. It’s not good for you but delivers great flavor to French fries if you fry in a mixture of beef fat and vegetable oil.)
2. Salt the entire surface of the meat, then liberally apply the ancho chile rub.
3. Light your grill. If you’re using charcoal, make a narrow mound over which your steak can sit. If you’re using propane, you’ll need one burner cranked up to 11.
4. Meanwhile, put a heavy skillet over medium-high heat on your stove. When the skillet is hot, add about a tablespoon of olive oil and add the bell peppers and as much of the Serrano as you like. Season with salt. Cook about five minutes until the bell pepper strips are softened and a little browned.
5. Add the onions and more salt and stir thoroughly. The goal now is to cook the onions down and let them caramelize a little, which will take about 15 minutes. Stir this mixture from time to time to prevent anything from burning or sticking. When the veggies are nearly done, add the minced garlic clove and about a tablespoon of the chile mixture (assuming you have some left).
6. When the grill is ready, place the steak directly over the heat. This is direct heat cooking – cook for about two to three minutes per side, then flip, cook for two to two and a half minutes more, and take it off. You don’t want to cook either of these cuts of steak past medium or they will become tough. Let the steak rest for five minutes.
7. While the steak is resting, you’ll need to heat the tortillas. (Yes, the best tortillas are homemade, and I’ve done it many times. It takes almost an hour just to roll and cook them, never mind making the dough ahead of time and letting it rest. I haven’t had that kind of time since I joined ESPN and became a dad within a two-week span.) You have two options: You can heat them one at a time in a hot dry skillet, 20 seconds per side; or you can heat them in a stack wrapped in aluminum foil in a 300 degree oven for about five minutes.
8. Slice the steak thinly on the bias. Serve with the pepper/onion mixture and any side items you desire.
Suggested sides: I’m partial to a simple guacamole of mashed avocado, lime juice, salt, cumin, pressed garlic (the rare occasion when the use of a garlic press is acceptable), and chopped cilantro. Cotija cheese or queso fresco both play nice with fajitas. And if you really want to kick it up, try adding a little of this habanero crema:
1 cup crème fraîche
1 habanero, seeded, ribs removed, stemmed, minced finely. (Note: Do this with latex gloves on. If you handle a cut habanero with your bare hands and then touch your eyes … well, it hurt like a motherf—– when I did it with a jalapeño and I couldn’t see out of that eye for fifteen minutes. I believe a habanero is almost fifty times hotter than a jalapeño. So wear gloves.)
1/8 tsp white pepper
Pinch of salt
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour.