Tue Oct 22, 2013
Alton Brown's skirt steak is one of my all time favorite recipes. In a life where multiple blogs requires me to cook new recipes most of the time, that skirt steak is one of the few that I go back to again and again, grilling it countless times since I first saw it on television in 2003. I love it so much, that I've seen no need to use anything else as a fajita filler, and was only reminded of that when I first dabbled into chicken fajita territory a few years ago. It wasn't that the chicken was bad, but put it up against steak, and...c'mon. Still, I'm always learning, and in the time since I last attempted chicken fajitas, I could see minor, but important, ways to improve them. So when I had a Tex-Mex Meatwave going a few weeks ago, it seemed as good a time as any to give those chicken fajitas another shot, and I was left surprisingly impressed with the results.
When it comes down to it, I'd always use thighs as my chicken meat of choice—it's fattier, more flavorful, and more forgiving during cooking. The problem is I know some strange people who won't touch dark meat, yet know no one who won't eat white meat (even if they don't prefer it). So I challenged myself to make a great chicken fajita with the rather lackluster boneless, skinless chicken breast.
Overcooking leads to so many dry chicken breasts, and unfortunately overcooking is almost a given if you don't correct one of the primary problems—it's shape. Since the chicken breast is of an uneven thickness, the thinner portion will overcook while waiting for the thickest part to finish up. A quick pounding out of the breast fixes this in a few seconds, making it an even 1/2-inch thick.
Once the chicken is pounded out, it never hurts to give it a brine. This salty solution adds moisture into the meat, creating a kind of insurance policy against it drying out too easily later on the grill. With thighs, sometimes I skip this because they tend to do alright without, but I rarely cook a chicken breast without first brining it for about thirty minutes first.
While my chicken was brining, I put together the marinade. The skirt steak marinade that I love is top notch, but it's also quite heavy handed—which it needs to be to stand up against strong beefiness of skirt. Since chicken has a much, much more subdued flavor, the marinade can be lighter and more nuanced. So instead of applying the skirt steak marinade here—where it might have been too overpowering—I came up with one that mixed together cilantro, lime juice, garlic, oil, brown sugar, cumin, and red pepper flakes to give the right earthy, fresh, and spicy flavor I was after.
The marinade won't really penetrate the meat, so there isn't much use in soaking the chicken in it for too long. I simply poured the marinade into a Ziploc bag with the chicken and set in the fridge for the thirty minutes it took to prep the grill.
On the grill it was important to pay close attention to the chicken. The thin breasts cooked up incredibly fast over a very hot fire—which you want for a nice sear. It only took three to five minutes per side for them to brown and cook through. As soon as the chicken was done, they were pulled from the grill to ensure they weren't overcooked, and then let rest.
Not to waste a good fire, I then removed the grilling grate and nestled my cast iron skillet filled with onions and red and green peppers directly on the coals. The immense heat produced by the coals meant that these veggies softened and started to brown nicely in just over five minutes, which was the same amount of time the chicken needed to rest before slicing and serving.
One bite of the chicken and I was a bit blown away. I expected a rather ho-hum chicken breast, but this thing actually delivered an incredible amount of flavor. The freshness of the cilantro and tartness of the lime were unmistakable, while the garlic gave it a little bite, the cumin a touch of earthiness, and the red pepper a little heat. It was a piece of chicken in harmony, where the marinade provided enough punch to lift up the lowly skinless and boneless breast, but not so much that overwhelmed the delicate nature of the chicken. Even when piled into flour tortillas (homemade, with lard, please) with veggies, salsa fresca, and sour cream, the chicken held its own. Sure, it still doesn't beat out skirt steak as my fajita meat of choice, but it doesn't have to—these chicken fajitas were great in their own right, andI think they have finally earned a place next to the that divine bovine.
- Prep Time:
- 15 Minutes
- Inactive Time:
- 1 Hour
- Cook Time:
- 20 Minutes
- Total Time:
- 1 Hour 35 Minutes
- 4-6 servings
- For the brine
- 2 quarts cold water
- 1/3 cup Kosher salt
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 3 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded to 1/2-inch thick
- For the marinade
- 1/3 cup packed coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
- 1/4 cup lime juice
- 3 medium cloves garlic, peeled
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 teaspoons dark brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- For the vegetables
- 1 large red bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch strips
- 1 large green bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch strips
- 1 large white onion, cut into 1/4-inch strips
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Sour cream, for serving
- Flour tortillas, for serving
- To make the brine: In a medium bowl whisk together water, salt, and sugar until solids are dissolved. Place chicken breasts in brine and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Remove chicken from brine and pat dry with paper towels.
- To make the marinade: Place cilantro, lime juice, oil, brown sugar, cumin, crushed red pepper, and salt in the jar of a blender. Blend until smooth. Place chicken in a large resealable plastic bag and pour in marinade. Seal bag, removing as much air as possible, and toss to throughly coat chicken in marinade. Marinade chicken breasts in refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly over entire surface of coal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Remove chicken from marinade and grill over direct high heat until well browned and just cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Remove to cutting board and let rest for 10 minutes.
- While the chicken is resting, toss the peppers and onion with a olive oil and a season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove cooking grate and nestle a cast iron skillet directly on the hot coals. When heated, add in the peppers and onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they are soft and nicely browned, about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Place cooking grate back in place and warm tortillas on the grill until soft and pliable. Assemble fajitas with the vegetables, chicken, and a dollop of sour cream.