Traditional Tex-Mex fajitas are made from marinated skirt steak, the long thin cuts of beef that run along the inside section of the ribs and the upper section of the flank, over the diaphragm area. Once cut away from the forequarter of the cow, the skirts need be trimmed of a heavy layer of fat and silver skin before use. The term fajita is the diminutive form of the Spanish word “faja”, meaning girdle or belt, an apt description for the location of the skirt steaks.
In the early 80’s Homero Recio, an animal science professor from Texas, got a fellowship to research the popular dish’s history. According to his findings, the earliest fajitas can be traced back to an area near the Texas/Mexico border in the 1940’s. On the west Texas cattle ranches, the skirt was considered a throwaway cut of the beef, along with the head, entrails, etc. and was often given to the Mexican farmhands. Skirt steak, like flank steak and flap, is a tougher cut with a chewy bite. The early Mexican ranchers would marinate the meat in lime juice and sear it quickly over an open fire to make it tender. These steaks, though tougher than loins and T-bones, tend to be rich in flavor and are still cheaper in today’s meat markets.
In today’s restaurants, however, fajitas are rarely made with the skirt steak anymore. But the dish is still served in the style of the original ranchers, with savory condiments and wrapped in a soft flour tortilla. Lean beef and veggies with a thin wrap should make for a relatively low-cal dish, but classic restaurant versions tend to run very high in calories from the fattier meat cuts, vegetable frying oil and gobs of conventional sour cream. Chili’s beef fajitas without the condiments or tortillas weigh in at 390 calories, but add three tortillas and one serving of condiments and your entrée tops out at 880 cal.
Calories aside, there’s a reason fajitas are so popular: They rock out loud in the flavor department. The sizzling platters at the restaurants add sex appeal and we do love to roll our own, but it’s the taste combination of Mexi-spiced beef and pungent sautéed veggies that keeps bringing us back for more. The good news is that you can recreate the basics of this dish quite quickly and easily for a healthier, home-cooked “cheater fajiter” that will please your hungry family in a flash.
If you use a tender cut of meat, like tenderloin, sirloin or even top round, there’s no need to marinate ahead of time, which means you can get this tasty dish on the table in minutes. You can whip up a quick Mexican herb and spice combo with things you already have in your spice rack. Or, to save yourself even more time, you can use a premade fajita seasoning pack instead. Just make sure it’s one hundred percent natural, low in sodium, additive-free, and sugar-free. Simply Organic Fajita Seasonings is a decent choice. You can slice your own onions and peppers or use precut versions form the market, fresh or frozen. You can even cook the meat and veggies together if your diners are banging their forks on the table, but the meat will sear better if you cook it first, without the moisture from the veg. Douse everything with splashes of fresh lime juice and tamari sauce at the end of cook time to give your fajitas a touch of that long-marinated flavor.
Skip the white flour wraps in favor of warmed sprouted corn or whole grain tortillas for that soft, satisfying consistency. To keep it low carb, use hardy lettuce leaves or roll your fajitas in half collard leaves, sliced from their stems, either raw or blanched. Dress ‘em up any way you like with fun Tex-Mex condiments like spicy salsa, chopped olives, spinach, lettuce and tomatoes and/or a dollop of sour cream or Greek yogurt (from pastured cow’s for best quality and nutrient values).