Feel free to mix and match vegetables and proteins, and to play around with other vegetables, for this exuberant one-dish meal.

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Why is it so hard to find good fajitas?

That’s a question I found myself asking recently as I went on a fajitas crawl in Los Angeles, where I live, to check in on that essential and once fashionable Tex-Mex dish. The platters that arrived at my table never varied; they came bearing the requisite grilled strips of skirt steak, chicken or shrimp, usually overcooked, with seared onions and peppers that were greasy and underseasoned. Alongside were the predictable bowls of grated yellow cheddar cheese, sour cream, guacamole and salsa.

Cumin- and chili-rubbed skirt steak can be used for steak fajitas.  (RIKKI SNYDER/NYT)
Cumin- and chili-rubbed skirt steak can be used for steak fajitas. (RIKKI SNYDER/NYT)

They were a far cry from the fajitas I used to eat at backyard barbecues with Mexican-American families in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where I lived in the 1970s.

My friends would grill cumin- and chili-rubbed skirt steak, at that time a cheap cut of meat, slice it thin and serve it on fresh flour tortillas. They cooked onions and chilies, sweet peppers and sometimes corn on the same grill until the vegetables were charred, and served them with the meat on the warm tortillas, with grated cheddar and crumbled queso fresco, fresh tomato salsa and guacamole that they mashed in molcajetes, mortar and pestles made from volcanic rock. A few Tex-Mex restaurants in the Valley also served fajitas, but the dish was local, far from mainstream.

Fajitas had been around on both sides of the border for as long as ranchers in South and West Texas had been using immigrant Mexican laborers during roundups. The ranchers partly paid their cowboys with cheap parts of the steer: heads, entrails and trimmings, which included skirt steaks. They grilled the steaks over the campfire, and ate them in warm tortillas.

The dish became known elsewhere in Texas during the 1970s as a diaspora of restaurateurs who had roots in the Rio Grande Valley began to put them on their menus. But the real breakthrough, according to Austin Chronicle food writer Virginia B. Wood, came in 1982, when a chef put Sizzling Fajitas on his menu at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Austin. The restaurant quickly became the most profitable in the Hyatt chain, and fajitas became a nationwide phenomenon.

The price of skirt steak skyrocketed. My butcher sells it today for $18.49 a pound.

You would think that there would have been a fair amount of fajita innovation over these last 30 years, but except for the dish opening itself up to chicken and shrimp, there hasn’t, at least not that I saw.

Steak and fixings are ready for fajitas. (RIKKI SNYDER/NYT)
Steak and fixings are ready for fajitas. (RIKKI SNYDER/NYT)

I decided to head into my kitchen and change things up. I wasn’t interested in altering the dish in any profound way, but I did want my versions to have more flavor and less grease than restaurant fajitas. I stuck to steak, chicken and shrimp, and I used a cumin-chili rub for the beef, chipotle adobo for the chicken and shrimp, and a citrusy marinade and lots of cilantro for all.

The vegetables are now on equal footing with the proteins. I sear a generous mix of peppers and onions and season them with green chilies, garlic and cumin. I also added zucchini and corn to the shrimp fajitas.

Feel free to mix and match vegetables and proteins, and to play around with other vegetables, for this exuberant one-dish meal.

 

STEAK FAJITAS

Makes 4 servings

 

1 tablespoon cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground

1 teaspoon chipotle or ancho chili powder

1 teaspoon salt, more to taste

1 ¼ pounds flank or skirt steak

Zest of 1 lime (2 teaspoons)

¼ cup fresh lime juice

¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

4 large garlic cloves, minced

1 large red or yellow onion, halved and sliced

2 red bell peppers (or 1 red and 1 orange or yellow), seeded and sliced ¼-inch thick

1 green bell pepper, seeded and sliced ¼-inch thick

1 jalapeño or 2 serrano chilies, minced

¼ cup chopped cilantro

4 large flour or 8 corn tortillas

1 teaspoon grapeseed or canola oil

1 romaine heart, cut crosswise into 1-inch-wide pieces

Salsa Fresca, for serving (see recipe)

Queso fresco, for sprinkling

 

1. Combine 2 teaspoons ground cumin, the chili powder and 1 teaspoon salt. With a sharp knife, cut shallow crosshatched incisions across top and bottom surfaces of steak. Rub spice mix all over surface of steak. (It’s best to wear gloves as the chili powder is hot.) Place steak in a resealable freezer bag.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together lime juice and zest, ¼ cup olive oil, the Worcestershire sauce and half the garlic. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the marinade and pour the rest into the bag with steak. Seal and move steak around in bag to coat thoroughly. Place on a sheet pan and refrigerate for at least four hours and up to 24 hours. Massage bag periodically to redistribute marinade. Refrigerate reserved marinade if cooking the next day.

3. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring, until they soften and begin to color, four to five minutes. Stir in bell peppers and chili. Cook, stirring, until peppers begin to soften, about three minutes.

4. Lower heat to medium, add remaining garlic and cumin, and salt to taste. Cook, stirring often, until peppers are nicely seared, softened and beginning to caramelize, five to eight minutes.

5. Pour in reserved 2 tablespoons marinade and scrape bottom of pan with a wooden spoon to deglaze. Stir in half the cilantro. Taste and adjust seasoning. Remove from heat but keep warm.

6. Wrap tortillas in foil and warm in a low oven, or wrap in a towel and warm in a steamer or in the microwave.

7. Heat a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, or prepare a medium-hot grill. Remove meat from marinade and discard marinade. Pat meat dry with paper towels. If using a skillet, heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in skillet. (If your skillet is not large enough for the steak, cut it in half and cook in batches.) Cook for three to four minutes per side. Meat should be medium-rare. Remove to a cutting board, cover with foil and let sit for 10 minutes. Cut across the grain into ½- to ¾-inch wide strips.

8. Arrange lettuce on a platter, then place steak next to lettuce. Tip juices from cutting board over meat and sprinkle with remaining cilantro. Serve vegetables on the same platter or separately, along with warm tortillas, salsa and crumbled queso fresco.

 

CHICKEN FAJITAS

Makes 4 servings

 

Finely grated zest of 1 lime (about 2 teaspoons)

¼ cup fresh lime juice

Salt and black pepper

2 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground

2 tablespoons adobo sauce from canned chipotles in adobo

1 chipotle chili in adobo, seeded and minced (optional)

¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 large garlic cloves, minced or put through a press

1 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast

1 large red or yellow onion, halved and sliced

2 red bell peppers (or 1 red and 1 orange or yellow), seeded and sliced about ¼-inch thick

1 green bell pepper, seeded and sliced about ¼-inch thick

1 jalapeño or 2 serrano chilies, minced

¼ cup chopped cilantro

4 large flour or 8 corn tortillas

1 tablespoon grapeseed or canola oil (or use olive oil)

1 romaine heart, sliced crosswise

Salsa Fresca, for serving (see recipe)

Queso fresco, for sprinkling

 

1. In a small bowl, combine lime zest and juice, ½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, the adobo sauce and optional minced chipotle, ¼ cup olive oil and half the garlic. Mix well. Set aside 2 tablespoons of the marinade.

2. Season chicken with salt and pepper and place in a resealable bag. Pour in the marinade and seal bag. Move chicken around to coat well, place bag in a bowl and refrigerate for 30 minutes (or up to 12 hours). Flip the bag over from time to time to redistribute marinade.

3. Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. When oil is hot, add onions and cook, stirring, until they soften and begin to color, three to four minutes. Stir in bell peppers and chili and cook, stirring, until peppers begin to soften, three to four minutes.

4. Turn heat to medium, add remaining garlic and cumin and salt to taste, and cook, stirring often, until peppers are nicely seared, softened and beginning to caramelize, five to eight minutes.

5. Pour in reserved 2 tablespoons marinade and scrape bottom of pan with a wooden spoon to deglaze. Add half the cilantro, and stir together. Taste and adjust seasoning. Remove from heat but keep warm.

6. Wrap tortillas in foil and warm in a low oven, or wrap in a towel and warm in a steamer or in the microwave.

7. Heat grapeseed or canola oil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy skillet. Remove chicken breasts from marinade, reserving marinade, and pat dry with paper towels. Add to pan, rounded side down, and sear for three to four minutes, until lightly charred. Flip breasts over, pour in marinade, cover pan and reduce heat to medium. Cook 12 to 15 minutes, flipping over from time to time, until a thermometer registers 160 to 165 degrees when inserted into thickest part. Transfer to a cutting board and cover with foil. Let sit five to 10 minutes, then cut across the grain into ½- to ¾-inch thick strips.

8. Arrange lettuce on a platter, then place chicken next to lettuce. Tip juices from cutting board over chicken and sprinkle with cilantro. Serve vegetables on the same platter or separately. Serve with warm tortillas, salsa and crumbled queso fresco.

 

SHRIMP FAJITAS WITH PEPPERS AND ZUCCHINI

Makes 4 servings

 

Zest of 1 lime (2 teaspoons)

¼ cup fresh lime juice

Salt and pepper

2 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground

1 tablespoon adobo sauce from canned chipotles in adobo

¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 large garlic cloves, minced

1 ½ pounds medium or large shrimp, shelled and deveined

1 large red or yellow onion, halved and sliced

1 red bell pepper, seeded and sliced ¼-inch thick

1 jalapeño or 2 serrano chilies, minced

1 large zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced

1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels (from 1 large ear of corn)

¼ cup chopped cilantro

1 romaine heart, sliced crosswise

4 large flour or 8 corn tortillas

Quick green salsa, for serving (see recipe)

Queso fresco, for sprinkling

 

1. In a small bowl, combine lime zest and juice, ½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, the adobo sauce, ¼ cup olive oil and half the garlic. Reserve 2 tablespoons marinade.

2. Season shrimp with salt and pepper and place in a resealable bag. Pour in marinade and seal bag. Move shrimp around to coat well, place bag in a bowl and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Flip bag over periodically to redistribute marinade.

3. Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons oil. When oil is hot, add onions and cook, stirring often, until they soften and begin to color, three to four minutes. Stir in bell pepper and chili and cook, stirring often, until peppers begin to soften, three to four minutes.

4. Stir in zucchini and corn, and turn heat to medium. Add remaining garlic, cumin and salt to taste. Cook, stirring often, until the zucchini is tender and peppers are nicely seared, softened and beginning to caramelize, five to eight minutes.

5. Pour in reserved 2 tablespoons marinade and scrape bottom of pan with wooden spoon to deglaze. Stir in half the cilantro. Taste and adjust seasoning. Remove from heat but keep warm.

6. Wrap tortillas in foil and warm in the oven, or wrap in a towel and warm in a steamer or in the microwave.

7. Transfer shrimp, with marinade, to a bowl. Remove shrimp from marinade and blot briefly on paper towels. Reserve marinade.

8. Arrange lettuce on a platter. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy skillet, preferably cast-iron, or a wok. Add shrimp and let sear; when they begin to turn pink, after about one minute, add drained marinade. Cook, stirring, until cooked through, three to four minutes. Using tongs, transfer shrimp from pan to platter. Turn up heat, reduce liquid in pan by half, and pour over shrimp.

9. Arrange vegetables on platter with shrimp, or serve separately. Sprinkle with remaining cilantro and serve, with warm tortillas, salsa and crumbled queso fresco.

 

SALSA FRESCA

Makes 2 cups

 

¼ small white or red onion, minced

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1 pound fresh, ripe tomatoes, finely chopped

1 to 3 jalapeño or serrano chilies, to taste, minced (and seeded, if you would like a milder salsa)

4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, more to taste

1 to 3 teaspoons fresh lime juice (optional)

Salt to taste

 

1. Place minced onion in a bowl and cover with cold water. Add vinegar and let sit for five minutes or longer. Drain and rinse with cold water.

2. In a medium bowl, combine remaining ingredients and stir in onions. (If your tomatoes are full of flavor, you won’t need lime juice.) Ideally, let stand at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes before eating so that flavors will blend and ripen.

 

QUICK GREEN SALSA

Makes 2 cups

 

1 pound tomatillos, husked and rinsed

2 to 4 jalapeño or serrano chilies, to taste, coarsely chopped (and seeded, if you would like a milder salsa)

¼ cup chopped white or yellow onion, soaked for five minutes in cold water, drained and rinsed

1 garlic clove, peeled and halved (optional)

½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro

Salt to taste

 

1. Heat broiler, positioning a rack at the highest setting under the heat. Cover a baking sheet with foil and place tomatillos on top, stem side down. Broil two to five minutes, until charred on one side. Turn tomatillos over and broil two to five minutes longer, until charred. Transfer tomatillos to a blender, tipping in any juice that may have accumulated on the foil.

2. Add chilies, onions, garlic (if using), cilantro and ¼ cup water to blender and blend to a coarse purée. Transfer to a bowl and thin out as desired with water. Taste and adjust salt. Set aside for at least 30 minutes before serving, to allow the flavors to develop.