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~ Tex-Mex Skinny Chicken-Fajita Corn-Tortilla Tacos ~

IMG_1879 2Fajitas were originally named tacos-al-carbon and were served as portable food, ready-to-eat-with-the-hands, by wrapping strips of unpretentious skirt steak that had been cooked over a campfire or on a grill, in a warm corn or flour tortilla, meaning they were served taco-style.  "Faja" is the Spanish word for "strip, band, sash or belt", and, with "ita" added to the end, it means "a little strip, band, sash or belt", meaning the ingredients for fajitas are always cut into strips.

The dish dates back to cattle ranching life along the Rio Grande Valley regions of the Texas-Mexico border in the 1930's.  Throwaway items (heads, entrails and meat trimmings) were given to the Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) as part of their pay, resulting in some of the first Tex-Mex border dishes: barbacoa de cabeza (head barbecue), menudo (tripe stew), and fajitas/arracheras (grilled skirt steak).  Because of the limited number of skirts per animal, the meat wasn't available for sale, so, for years it remained obsure to all except the vaqueros, butchers and their families.

IMG_1873Fahitas transition from taco shells to sizzling plates in 1969: 

6a0120a8551282970b01a73defa9f9970dFajitas made their first commercial debut in September 1969 when Sonny Falcon, an Austin meat market manager opened a taco concession in rural Kyle.  The same year, Otilia Garza began selling them in her Round-Up Restaurant in Pharr, only she presented hers on a sizzling platter with warm flour tortillas, condiments and cheese to the side -- so everyone could make their own.  In 1973, Nifa Rodrigues Laurenzo opened Nifa's in Houston and sold his prewrapped "tacos al carbon" called "tacos al la Nifa". 

Thanks to folks like Sonny, Otilia and Nifa,  fajitas did gain in popularity, slowly spreading via rodeos, fairs and festivals into the surrounding Southwestern states of Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona, but, national attention didn't come to the fajita until 1982.  George Weidmann, a very creative chef at the fancy-schmancy Hyatt Regency Hotel in Austin, recognized the potential for putting a home-grown Tex-Mex dish on his menu.  He, like Otilia, put panache into his presentation, by serving them on sizzling, attention-grabbing cast-iron skillets.  Thanks to George, this now trendy dish was put on Hyatt Regency menus almost everywhere, and, that is when and how I caught fajita-fever (in their Century Plaza restaurant in Los Angeles).  Before long, to please the palates of the clientele, thin strips of boneless chicken were offered as an option to beef.    

IMG_1895 2Fajitas -- easy-to-make Tex-Mex fare that any home cook can make better than any drive-thru or restaurant, anywhere, anytime.

IMG_1797For the chicken & seasonings:

6  large (about 2 1/2-3 pounds) boneless, skinless chicken thighs, lightly-pounded into paillards

2-3  tablespoons vegetable oil

3  tablespoons fajita seasoning, my blend, your blend, or, a favorite store-bought seasoning mix, about 3 tablespoons (1, 1-ounce envelope store-bought)

a sprinkling of ground cumin

a very-light sprinkling of ground jalapeño pepper

a very-light sprinkling of freshly-ground sea salt 

For the vegetable medley & seasonings:

3  cups 1/4"-thick sliced yellow or sweet onion, slices cut into half-moon shapes

1  1/2  cups each, julienne of:  green, red, orange and yellow bell pepper

3  tablespoons fajita seasoning, my blend, your blend, or a favorite store-bought seasoning mix (1, 1-ounce envelope store-bought)

a sprinkling of ground cumin 

a very-light sprinkling of ground jalapeño pepper

a very-light sprinkling of freshly-ground sea salt

IMG_1867For the assembly:

24  5 1/2"-round fresh corn tortillas, formed into taco shells & lightly deep-fried in corn or peanut oil for 28 seconds each

all of the cooked & seasoned meat/vegetable mixture, prepared as directed below

avocado crema (a mixture of puréed avocado, Mexican crema & Sriracha sauce), for garnish

IMG_1803 IMG_1803 IMG_1803 IMG_1815 IMG_1815~Step 1.  To season and cook chicken on first side, heat the oil in a 16" electric skillet over low heat.  Add the chicken paillards to the skillet. Liberally season the top side with half of the fajita seasoning (1 1/2 tablespoons), followed by a moderate sprinkling of ground cumin, followed by a very-light sprinkling of jalapeño pepper and sea salt.  Increase skillet temperature to 225°.  Sauté the chicken until nicely-golden on the bottom, about 6-7 minutes.  

IMG_1824 IMG_1824 IMG_1824 IMG_1842 IMG_1842~Step 2.  Using a fork or a spatula, flip the chicken over.  To season and cook the chicken on the second side, repeat the seasoning process on the second side, and, sauté until golden on the bottom, another 6-7 minutes. Flip the chicken over one more time and cook for 1 additional minute. Turn the heat off.  Remove the chicken from the skillet (leaving all of the flavorful pan drippings in the bottom.  Slice the chicken into very thin strips and set aside.

IMG_1842 IMG_1844 IMG_1845 IMG_1845 IMG_1845 IMG_1857 IMG_1857 IMG_1857~Step 3.  Add all of the onions and bell peppers to the chicken drippings in the skillet, spreading them out across the surface of the bottom of pan.  Season the vegetables by sprinkling them with all of the fajita seasoning, a moderate sprinkling of ground cumin, and, a very-light sprinkling of jalapeño pepper and sea salt.  Using two large slotted spoons, give the mixture a thorough stir. Adjust the heat to 225° and sauté the vegetables until crunch-tender, about 3-4 minutes.  Add all of the chicken strips, give the mixture a thorough stir and continue to cook until chicken is just heated through, about 1 minute.  Turn heat off.  Transfer chicken/veggie mixture to a large bowl.

IMG_1913~ Step 4.  Using a large slotted spoon, portion the hot chicken-vegetable mixture into up to 24, 6" taco shells.  That said, do not fill any more taco shells than your expecting your family or friends to eat at one sitting.  Drizzle some avocado crema atop each filled taco and serve immediately.  Store leftover chicken-vegetable filling in the refrigerator (I do not recommend freezing) for up to 2-3 days and reheat gently in the microwave.

Of course you want a drizzle of avocado crema on these fajitas:

IMG_1896Tex-Mex Skinny Chicken-Fajita Corn-Tortilla Tacos:  Recipe yields 24 5 1/2"-round chicken-fajita tacos.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; flat-sided meat mallet; 16" electric skillet w/lid; fork; large spatula; 2 large slotted spoons

6a0120a8551282970b01bb092a1480970dCook's Note: Elote (ay-loht) is the Spanish word for "corn", and in Mexico, it typically references a very special street-snack food:  grilled corn-on-the cob slathered in a crema and chili-powder and lime-laced sauce, then sprinkled with crumbled cotija cheese.  Street vendors typically pull back the husk but leave it attached, remove all of the silk, return the husk to its original position, secure it at the open end with twine and place it over hot coals. In home kitchens, it's common to remove the husks and simply place the cobs on a the grill to char.  For the perfect side to your fajitas, try my recipe for ~ Classic Grilled Mexican Sweet Street Corn (Elotes) ~.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2021)


RIP Mama Ninfa!


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