It’s almost time to say goodbye to summer, so we decided to designate Sept. 7 as Fajita Monday, combining our two favorite things: grilling and fajitas. Think of it as a twist on Taco Tuesday and set out a variety of fixings for a dining adventure. Then let a few friends (just a few) in on your idea.
Here’s what you’ll need to get the festivities started.
Fajitas got their start as cut-up skirt steak, according to Steven Raichlen, award-winning cookbook author and owner of Barbecue U, where he teaches cooking classes.
“Fajitas have been a Texas tradition since 1973, when Mexican-born restaurateur Ninfa Laurenzo put them on the menu of her Houston restaurant, Ninfa’s,” he said. “Originally, fajitas were grilled skirt steak, but they’ve been made with everything from lobster to portobellos.”
These days, skirt steak is hard to find, unless you know a rancher or specialty butcher shop.
“Or supermarkets that cater to a Hispanic clientele,” Raichlen said.
That’s because there are only four skirts on each cow, which translates to about 8 pounds of beef. When chefs at Mexican food restaurants discovered how delicious skirt steak fajitas were, the dish become popular — so popular that demand drove down the meat’s availability. Chefs had to find other flavorful substitutes, which led them to lobster, meat-like mushrooms, chicken, pork and shrimp.
They also tried other cuts of beef. Beef hanger steak was one of the first runners-up, followed by sirloin flap and — what you see most often used today — flank steak. These cuts have the same beefy flavor and texture as skirt steak.
Eric Stewart, owner of Boz Catering and Boz Market and Cafe in Rockrimmon Boulevard, is a fan of flank steak. At his cafe, he occasionally offers flour tortilla carne asada fajitas on his rotating grab-and-go menu.
“There is a dispute between whether to use flank steak or skirt steak,” he said. “I personally love flank steak, because there is less collagen and connective tissue to deal with versus skirt steak. And since flank steak is primarily used by most Mexican restaurants, I go with it.”
He recommends buying Angus flank steaks at Shamrock Warehouse on North Academy Boulevard, which he says “freeze great” and “are cheaper than anywhere else for that price and quality.” The warehouse sells to restaurant and food truck businesses as well as the general public.
Stewart makes a marinade of oil, acid, salt, sugar and spicy seasonings — ingredients that work together to tenderize and flavor the flank steak.
The oil in the marinade emulsifies the mixture, making it thicker and tackier, which helps it stick to the meat better. Oil-soluble ingredients like garlic, onion and ground spices are absorbed in the marinade, and blending them releases their flavor compounds.
Acid in lime juice helps tenderize the meat and balance the flavors.
The salt comes from soy sauce, usually associated with Asian dishes. Salt has protease, an enzyme that helps break down and tenderize tough proteins. Soy sauce also has glutamates, a natural flavor enhancer that gives the sensation of umami and makes meat taste meatier.
Sugar in the marinade caramelizes when the meat hits the grill for the rich browning flavor.
And Stewart’s seasonings include red pepper flakes, ground cumin, tajin seasoning and Whiskey Barrel Cracked Pepper. He gets his spices from Savory Spice Shop downtown.
“Their spices are not only fresher than any other place,” he said, “but they (the store owners) always have new stuff I have sometimes never heard of, and I can change my recipes, for the better, with all they have.”
Once the marinade is blended, it’s time to pour it into a Ziplock bag, add the steak and refrigerate overnight.
The grill ‘n fixins’
Make sure your grill is hot hot hot. Flank steak will cook quickly.
“Heat charcoal, preferably lump-style, until gray ash appears,” Stewart said. “A gas grill can be used — just bring it to 500 degrees.”
If you have room on your grill for a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, place it on the cooler side of the grill and prepare the bell pepper and onion slices, the classic sides for fajitas. You could cook the veggies on the stovetop, but then you’d heat up the kitchen.
Once the meat is grilled, it’s time for the most important part of making award-winning fajitas: carving the meat. Flank steak has a very pronounced grain, fibers that are aligned in the same direction. When it’s cut with the grain, you end up with long, almost impossible to chew fibers. Cutting it across the grain shortens the fibers and makes the meat easier to eat.
You can jazz up the fajitas, like the chefs at Salsa Brava did for the accompanying photo, with additional sides of refried beans, Spanish rice, grated cheese, salsa and sour cream. You can also add grilled chicken and shrimp for variety.
All that’s left to do is to mix up a pitcher of margaritas.
So, get the word out about your Fajita Monday and have a sizzling good holiday.
Contact the writer: 636-0271.