I promised Saybay I’d put up a few recipes. Since I just posted the Nachos recipe, I’ll add one for Fajitas as well. Everybody knows that in spite of my former white minivan (it’s a long story) I’m not Mexican. However, we do live in the TexMex part of the USA. I got that figured out real well when we moved to Guangzhou and had withdrawal pangs from lack of Tex Mex food! Plus, I got it figured out real fast that what is called "Mexican" in this part of the world really ain’t nowhere close! I’m just really fortunate that I’m an excellent copycat in the kitchen, and that for some reason my big thrill in life is watching cooking shows on TV.
Two of my most disappointing restaurant experiences in my life were when some expat had told me that this restaurant or that had really good Mexican food. When you’ve been craving a food and then you find it, finally, and order it in a restaurant, well let me tell you, the anticipation is big! So then the letdown after such anticipation is just awful! My experience with Mexican food has been the epitomy of what I mean by that!
After a month of living here, we were really craving Mexican. Lo and behold, we went to a restaurant where there were fajitas on the menu! We ordered fajitas. But when the food came, they had used ketchup as a sauce for the tough meat, that was supposed to be put on a flour tortilla. So about two years later, when we finally got a new Mexican restuarant in Guangzhou, I waited until I heard good reviews about it before venturing there myself. With great anticipation I ordered fajitas. A real Mexican restaurant, and my friends had said it was good. But when the fajitas came, there was like one thimbleful of sour cream, another thimbleful of canned guacamole, at least a teaspoon of cheese, some Chinese stir fried veggies, some tabasco sauce and zero barbeque sauce. I mean, give me a break! Fajitas? Not! Another time, we were told that a certain restaurant in Hong Kong had great Mexican food. At least there the food came out on a sizzling platter and was hot enough, but again the toppings were scant. And in Thailand, which seems to have more foreign flavor variety, again the word "Mexican" just seems to be synonymous with use of tabasco sauce to cover everything. I’ve simply come to accept that if I want fajitas in Guangzhou, the only place I’m going to get good ones is right in my very own kitchen.
So here, I’ll just divulge my secrets. First, the secret spice ingredients in fajitas are Cumin and Lime. I don’t mean lime from a squirt bottle, I mean fresh lime, too! My good friend Sunny M taught me that a bit of soy sauce won’t hurt them, either. And I also use a tiny, tiny bit of corn starch (like maybe 1/2 tsp sprinkled on top) if there is any liquid (cause I sometimes throw a bit of water on the pan if it’s cooking really really hot). Second, the veggies have to be seared fast in a really hot pan. (A wok works best, griddle is okay, frying pan only if you don’t have the other two.) Of course this means that time is of the essence because you can’t let them burn, just browned and caramelized a bit. So have everything all chopped and set aside, ready to go, before you turn the heat on. Third, I’ve never reached the point of making home made flour tortillas, but I’ve learned a trick. Some people microwave them, but in my opinion it works best to clean your pan after you cook the fajita veggies, set the veggies aside, and then pop each one into the pan and heat it over the stove. It only takes a sec to flip each one in, heat it quickly, then flip it onto a plate, and then cover the whole plate with a paper towel when you take it to the table.
So now the recipe, which will make a meal for about four people:
A small amount of meat of your choice, if desired
About 2 cups (one can) refried beans or bean chili (your choice). If using beans from a can, thin a bit with some water to make them spreadable.
1 pack flour tortillas (about 3 per person)
2 large, sweet onions
1 sweet pepper (red or yellow adds nice color, or half of each)
1 or 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
about 1.5 tsp cumin
The same toppings as in Nacho recipe (another blog entry): 1 cup grated cheese, sour cream, guacamole, barbeque sauce
Lettuce as desired
(yep all the toppings are optional, you know what you like and what you don’t like)
Lime for flavoring fajitas
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Get the chili or refried beans ready by heating them in a microwave (assuming the chili isn’t already hot). If desired, top with cheese and melt, then top with salsa (recipe in Nacho recipe blog entry), lettuce, sour cream . . . mmm. (Maybe I’ll make these tonight?!! I’m starting to crave fajitas thinking about this!)
Grate the cheese and place in a serving bowl
Prepare the home made salsa and guacamole (see Nachos recipe) and place in a serving bowl
Use a sharp knife to slice some lettuce into fine shreds and place in a serving bowl
Set up sour cream, guacamole, and barbeque sauce into bowls for serving
Open the package of flour tortillas, but don’t get them out just yet. The idea is to have everything ready so that it can all be served at once as soon as it’s cooked, all piping hot. So get the table all ready with all this stuff and the serving spoons, plates, drinks, etc and everything before you start to cook! Fajitas are a great social meal to make with your friends and lots of help! (Don’t forget the coronas and lime, or sweet iced tea! 😉 )
Now, to cook:
Meat: Slice whatever meat you are using into extremely thin strips. Sprinkle a bit of soy sauce over, some garlic from that which you have chopped, set aside to marinate for a minute.
Peel onions, but don’t cut off the root end of the onion. Place root end on cutting board, so that the onion is upright with the root on the bottom. Cut it in half top to bottom. (Now you can cut off the root and discard — I just included this particular instruction for the purpose of making sure that the onion is sliced lengthwise and not crosswise.) Now, lay the half onion cut side down on the cutting board, with the root end toward you. Slice into lengthwise strips as that are as narrow as you can make them. Then whack them with the knife to get the layers all separated. Set aside in bowl.
There is a fancy way to cut the pepper, but basically you just want it de-seeded and cut into as narrow strips as you can cut. Set the pepper aside into same bowl as onion. Add minced garlic. Go ahead and throw about 1.5 teaspoons of cumin on top.
(If you want to cut the pepper my fancy way so that the pepper is all straight, here’s how to do it: Take the bell pepper, lay it on its side, and cut off the top and bottom where it’s curvy. Then use a paring knife to reach inside and cut out the seeds, without cutting the pepper in half. Now, take the de-seeded pepper, and slice it one time from top to bottom. The pepper can now be rolled out flat like a square piece of paper. Now slice it as thin as you can, and the strips will all be straight. To use the parts from the top and bottom, just slice the useable parts of the top and bottom of the pepper into small bits and add them into the rest of the pepper.)
If you want to put a chili pepper in your fajitas as they cook, of course you may! Just get a red chili pepper, deseed it, and slice and add to the mixture. I don’t do this because there are usually some small children at my table.
Now, it’s time to cook. Ya know how fajitas are served on a sizzling hot plate?! Well, I don’t have one! But you definitely want those veggies hot and sizzling brown. So, cook the meat first and set it aside, and then cook the veggies. After the veggies are done, you will add back in so that everything is fresh and sizzling hot.
Meat: Set the heat on medium and throw some oil in your cooking pan (if meat is cooked too fast it will turn tough). Don’t put the meat into the pan until the oil sizzles when you throw a sprinkle of water on it (not too much, this is just literally one or two drops of water, which should immediately sizzle and turn to steam). Now, drop the meat in and toss it around with your spatula. If there is a lot of liquid, thicken it with a bit of corn starch. You can do this by using your fingers to sprinkle just a bit on top of the meat and then turning it. Season by sprinkling a bit of cumin on top. As soon as meat starts to be brown all over, take it off heat and set aside. Do not cook it too much, because you’re going to add it back into the veggies in a bit and it will cook some more at that time.
Veggies: Here’s where the pan gets hot. Put the pan on medium to high heat. Corn oil will enable a bit hotter temperature than some other types of oil. You want it to smoke just a tiny bit (or sizzle and pop when you throw in a drop of water), then throw the veggies in. Don’t stir frenetically. Instead, let them sit just a bit so they actually cook and turn just a tiny bit translucent (onion) or brown (peppers). But do stir them and turn them enough that they all get cooked. Remember, you’ve already added garlic and cilantro and seasoned the meat with soy as well, so it should smell pretty good. If you feel it needs more of anything, feel free to add it. Once the veggies are done, add the meat back in to stir and mix. Then, squeeze some lime on top and garnish with fresh, chopped cilantro. Transfer to a serving bowl (or onto a heated sizzling platter, if you have one!). Put this bowl on the table, so that all that’s left to complete the meal is the flour tortillas.
Now quickly wash your pan. Put it back on the heat, throw in the flour tortillas one at a time, heat each one for only a bit being careful not to burn it, transfer to a plate, cover with a paper towel, now serve everything. As I re-read the way I wrote this recipe, it sounds like you will be doing a lot of "throwing" stuff around in your kitchen. Of course! Cooking should be fun!