I don’t mean to mock the dish. I have fond memories of going to Tex-Mex restaurants in strip-malls (New Jersey, represent!) in high school and college, the kind of places that served slushy margaritas in cactus glasses and had waiters hurrying loud, sizzling skillets of meat and vegetable fillings from swinging kitchen door to various tables. But once the dish cooled, expectations usually did as well. Mounds of extras (chopped fresh onions, tomatoes, peppers, and cilantro were the standards) turned them into passable tacos, but without the fixings, they were deceptively dull despite their dramatic entrances. I never imagined a future where hacking the dish to our satisfaction would be probably the only meal we’ve ever eaten four times in three weeks; we’re a little addicted and it’s amazing how well it works on a weekday night. [Or where I'd make my own corn tortillas for it, but that for another day, when I've returned to my sanity.]
And especially right now, on the first day of spring. Comprised of mostly cold parts — we like it with a light lime slaw, pico de gallo, slices of avocado, black beans and Tapatio, of course, but shredded cheese, sour cream and pickled onions are equally popular toppings — and requiring only stovetop cooking for all of ten minutes in a single skillet, this seems the perfect dish to usher us away from all of the soups, stews and heavy white foods we console ourselves with all winter, and into the light, crunchy more colorful meals ahead. Finally.
Talk to me: Last year, I asked you about your weeknight go-to meals. This year, I have a more aspirational question; I’d love to know what kind of dishes you dream of making, if only time/money/energy/lack of audience (read: picky kids/spouses/roommates) participation/enthusiasm weren’t a factor. What you would tackle?
Three years ago: Tiny Poppy Seed Hamantaschen and Oat and Maple Syrup Scones
Four years ago: Baked Rigatoni with Tiny Meatballs, St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake, Warm Mushroom Salad with Hazelnuts and Coconut Milk Fudge
Five years ago: Key Lime Coconut Cake, Steak Sandwiches, Crispy, Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies and Pita Bread
Six years ago: Alex’s Chicken and Mushroom Marsala (newer updates to this, which has also become a weeknight favorite), Almond Biscotti (still perfect; still a favorite) and Roasted Acorn Squash and Gorgonzola Pizza
Seven years ago: Italian Bread and Mediterranean Eggplant and Barley Salad
Sizzling Chicken Fajitas
Fajitas were traditionally made with skirt steak, and the name fajita or arracheras
referred to the cut, which was once considered a throwaway cut, given to cattle hands along with other unpopular cuts as part of their pay. Here’s a great article on fajita history. Needless to say, thin strips of skirt steak would be excellent here too. You could also use an increased medley of vegetables to make this vegetarian.
Serves 4 to 5
For the chicken
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs (though, frankly, a little more or less will be fine here)
2 tablespoons lime juice (half a juicy lime)
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 garlic clove, minced or pressed
Few dashes hot sauce, optional
8 (6-inch) flour or corn tortillas
2 large bell peppers, cut into thin strips (I use a mix of green, red and other colors, if I can find them)
1 large yellow or sweet onion, halved and sliced thin
Fixings (pick your favorites)
1 1/2 cup cooked black beans (1 15-ounce can, drained and rinsed)
Salsa or pico de gallo
Sliced avocado or guacamole
Shredded cheese or sour cream
Minced white onion or pickled red onions
Chopped cilantro, pickled jalalpenos, hot sauce and lime wedges
Prepare chicken: Slice chicken thighs into thin strips (1/4- to 1/2-inch wide). Place in bowl or freezer bag. Add lime juice, spices and garlic and mix together. Let marinate for 30 minutes or up to 2 days in the fridge.
20 to 25 minutes before you’re ready to eat: Heat oven to 250 and wrap tortillas in foil. Set on rack to wram. Set out fixings of your choice.
Cook peppers, onions and chicken: Heat your largest skillet (I use a 12-inch cast iron) on the highest heat. When very hot, drizzle in some olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. When this is nearly smoking hot, add the peppers in a single layer. Wait. (This will be a theme.) Try to get them a little charred underneath before you move them around. Once they’ve begun to brown, add the onions, plus some salt. Wait again for some color to develop before you move them. When peppers are nicely charred in spots and onions have softened and sweetened, scrape mixture onto a plate or bowl to clear the skillet. Heat skillet again on a very high heat with a thin slick of olive oil. Spread chicken strips in as much of a single layer as you can. Wait until they brown underneath to move them. Saute strips, regularly pausing so that they can get some color, until cooked through, about 4 to 5 minutes. Return peppers and onions to skillet. Heat again until everything is sizzling and bring to the table.
Eat immediately, spooned onto warm tortillas and piled with fixings of your choice. Repeat again tomorrow.
My Lazy Taco Slaw: 1 bag of coleslaw mix + 2 scallions, thinly sliced + a spoonful or two of mayo + lime juice + salt to taste. If you don’t like mayo, use olive oil. I don’t recommend yogurt or sour cream because they might curdle. Creme fraiche would not. If you don’t have coleslaw mix, just shred a few cups of cabbage and add a grated large carrot to approximate it.
Slacker Pico de Gallo: Diced tomatoes + minced white onion + 1 minced jalapeno + squeeze of lime juice + splash of olive oil + salt + cilantro, if that’s your thing.
Pickled Red Onions: Mix 1/4 cup red wine vinegar + 1/4 cup cold water + 1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar + 1 tablespoon Diamond Kosher salt or generous 1/2 tablespoon Morton or another brand of kosher salt until sugar and salt have dissolved. Add thinly sliced red onion. Let marinate for 30 minutes (for very light pickling) or up to a week in the fridge. Put on everything.