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    Wednesday, September 27, 2023

    How to make sizzling steak fajitas at home

    I love Tex-Mex and frequently get creative with its flavors and ingredients. I make all kinds of nachos, chilies and casseroles at home, but I don't recall ever tackling fajitas. I think I shied away from this dish because of the theatricality of its presentation in restaurants.

    In the spring, my colleague Emily Heil wrote about the scandal of the "artificial sizzle": "Last month, people on TikTok reacted with betrayal and disbelief to videos that took diners into the heart of tortilla-wrapped darkness: It turns out that some restaurants amp up the special effects - that iconic steam and sizzle - by squirting droplets of water or oil onto the hot cast-iron platters just before parading them through the dining room."

    Dios mio!

    All theater requires some artifice, so I'm fine with that sprinkle of water or oil, and felt no outrage — just a craving for fajitas. Rather than gather a gang and go out, I decided to make them at home for friends, but I wanted that sizzle. While perusing cookbooks and websites, including our Recipe Finder, I discovered the recipes were quite simple and similar.

    You can make vegetarian fajitas, or make them with chicken or shrimp, but I went with the more traditional beef. The word "fajitas" comes from the Spanish word for "belt," which refers to the skirt steak that is traditionally used in the dish. Flank steak, which is thicker and wider, is a bit easier to find in stores, so I used that here. Both cuts work for the dish.

    I made a delicious batch, but without the sizzle, I felt left down. I was determined to see whether it was possible to carry a skillet of steak fajitas to my dinner table, complete with the trail of steam — without cheating.

    Was I successful? Yes, and no. The fajitas were delicious — what's not to like? — with seasoned and seared beef, peppers and onions with lots of toppings on warm tortillas. While I never delivered the crowd-pleasing white contrail that restaurants do, with careful timing I was able to plop that skillet on the table while it was still audibly sizzling and emitting thin wisps of steam.

    Here's how I did it.

    First, I marinated the meat. While it soaked up flavor, I sliced the vegetables and cooked them in a hot skillet. I transferred them to a bowl and covered them to keep them warm while I shredded cheese (yes, I like cheese on my fajitas, so sue me) and put the crema, fresh salsa and pickled jalapeños in serving bowls. Then, I sliced avocado, washed a handful of cilantro sprigs, cut a lime into wedges and added them to my table. Finally, I wrapped the tortillas in a towel and warmed them in the microwave before adding them to the table.

    If you're going to make a presentation with the skillet, you need a feast, right?

    In the center of it all, I placed a trivet for my hot skillet. I set out corn chips and asked folks to gather at the table and enjoy a few while I slipped back to the stove.

    There, I reheated the skillet to near smoking hot and seared and cooked the steak to just short of my liking. Pushing it to one side of the skillet, I added the vegetables to half of the pan, then tossed them a few times to get them nice and hot. As soon as everything was just as I liked it, I lifted the pan and carried it straight to the table.

    Heads turned as the hot, hot cast iron was hoisted into its place of honor, delivering a delicious scent driven by those muted, but still telltale, sizzles and steam.

    Before I knew it, hands were reaching for tortillas and filling them with meat and vegetables, toppings were going on, and everyone was eating, talking and enjoying.

    I call that a success.

    - - -

    Steak Fajitas

    6 to 8 servings

    Total time: 40 mins

    Can you deliver a platter of Tex-Mex steak fajitas to your dinner table that leaves a trail of steam like the ones carried through your favorite restaurant? Maybe not, but, if you time it right, you can produce one with an audible sizzle. First, marinate the meat, and while it soaks up flavor, prepare and cook the vegetables, warm the tortillas, load up your table with all of the desired toppings and set a trivet in place for the hot skillet. Then, just before serving, cook the meat, reheating the vegetables in that same skillet, and carry the hot-off-the-stove pan to the table for family-style serving. Skirt steak is traditionally used when making fajitas. Flank steak is a bit easier to find in stores, so we used that here. Either cut works for the dish. If you prefer, substitute boneless, skinless chicken breast, or shrimp, for the flank steak. With shrimp, the cooking time will vary with their size.

    Make Ahead: The meat can be marinated up to 8 hours in advance.

    Storage: Refrigerate the meat and vegetables, separately from the toppings and tortillas, for up to 4 days. Freeze the meat and vegetables for up to 1 month.


    For the marinade and steak

    1/2 cup fresh lime juice (from 6 limes)

    2 tablespoons olive oil

    4 cloves garlic, minced or finely grated

    2 tablespoons chili powder

    1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

    1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

    1/4 teaspoon fine salt

    1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

    1-1/2 pounds flank steak

    For the fajita filling

    2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

    1-1/2 pounds bell peppers, seeded and cut lengthwise into strips (use whatever colors you like)

    1 medium yellow or white onion (8 ounces), halved and sliced

    6 thick scallions, sliced into 2-inch pieces on the diagonal

    1 tablespoon chili powder

    1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

    1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

    1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

    1/4 teaspoon fine salt

    1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

    12 to 16 (6-inch) flour tortillas

    Any combination of shredded pepper jack or cheddar cheese; sour cream or Greek yogurt; pico de gallo or fresh salsa; pickled or fresh jalapeños; sliced avocado or guacamole; cilantro sprigs and lime wedges, for serving


    Make the marinade: In a large, lidded container, mix together the lime juice, oil, garlic, chili powder, oregano, cumin, salt and black pepper until combined.

    Marinate the steak: Place the steak on a cutting board and thinly slice it against the grain and on a bias. If the steak is thicker than 1 inch, you may need to cut some of the strips in half.

    Transfer the steak to the marinade, toss to coat evenly, cover and marinate on the counter for 15 to 20 minutes, tossing it again after about 5 minutes. (Alternatively, you can marinate the whole, unsliced steak in the refrigerator for up to 8 hours, turning once or twice. Then, slice it and return the slices to the marinade while you cook the vegetables.)

    Make the fajita filling: While the steak marinades, in a large skillet over high heat, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil until it shimmers. Add the bell peppers, onion and scallions, sprinkle with the chili powder, oregano, garlic powder, cumin, salt and pepper, and toss to combine. Cook undisturbed for about 2 minutes, then stir and continue cooking, stirring often, until softened and starting to brown in spots, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and cover to keep warm.

    Wrap the tortillas in a clean, damp kitchen towel and microwave on HIGH for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until hot. You can also heat the tortillas in a dry skillet over medium heat, or individually over a gas burner, until lightly charred on both sides.

    Place the tortillas on a plate, cover and transfer to the table, with your choice of toppings (see ingredients). Place a trivet, and tongs or serving spoons, on the table in preparation for the hot skillet.

    Remove the steak from the marinade, drain it well and discard the marinade. Lightly pat the meat dry.

    Return the skillet to high heat, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and heat until it shimmers. Add the steak and cook undisturbed for about 1 minute, then continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the meat is no longer pink, about 2 minutes more. (If the meat releases a lot of liquid, carefully spoon or pour some of it off.) Push the meat to one side of the pan, return the cooked vegetables to the skillet, and toss them once or twice to reheat.

    Immediately bring the sizzling skillet to the table to serve with the tortillas and toppings.

    Nutritional information per serving: (2 flour tortillas, 1/2 cup meat and 3/4 cup vegetables), based on 8: 444 calories, 43g carbohydrates, 58mg cholesterol, 19g fat, 6g fiber, 25g protein, 5g saturated fat, 631mg sodium, 7g sugar

    This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian's or nutritionist's advice.

    From recipes editor Ann Maloney.

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