Sunday, 16 October 2011

Chicken Fajitas, Chunky Salsa and Guacamole

It was gray and rainy outside on Friday. I love rain, but giving up summer is never easy for animals who thrives in warm weather... such as myself. It isn't cold yet in Montreal - we actually had a beautiful Thanksgiving weekend. But the days are short enough to keep us on our toes. I actually had to stock up on stockings (that are not fishnets... *sigh*), because wearing skirts in bare legs is no longer an option.

I got home wanting to eat something with a little bit of sunshine in it, so I decided to kiss summer good-bye on a nostalgic note: chicken fajitas is one of my favorite summertime dinner meals. It's delicious and deeply satisfying. Something about those spices, crisp veggies and fresh flavors always brings to my mind the hot, lazy summer evenings that I enjoy oh so much. It also gives me a wonderful homey feeling of sharing, as we pick out stuff straight from the pan onto our plates, and sometimes end up feeding each other the little bits.

Yes, my boyfriend and I have disgustingly cute moments like that. When you are done puking, read on.

I don't know why Mexican food feels so festive to pasty Canadians such as myself, but I generally crave those flavors when I have something to celebrate, even something as silly as the end of the week. And a celebration quickly whipped up is even better - once you have the chopping done, you can have these on the table in a snap. Also, using a grilling pan will let you get rid of a lot of fat from the chicken, so if you use whole wheat tortillas and light sour-cream, you've got yourself a filling and healthy meal, especially if you make your salsa and guacamole yourself.

This recipe, originally found in "Jamie's Food Revolution", is for 2, but can easily be doubled if you have friends over. However, I would advise against serving those to in-laws; no one looks poised eating fajitas...

1 red bell pepper
1 medium red onion
2 chicken breasts
1 tablespoon paprika
1 pinch of ground cumin
2 limes
4 or 6 large whole wheat tortillas
olive oil
sea salt and pepper

Halve and seed the red bell pepper and cut it into thin strips. Peel, halve, and finely slice the onion. Slice the chicken lengthwise into long strips, roughly the size of the pepper strips. Put the bell peppers, the onion and the chicken into a mixing bowl with the paprika and cumin. Squeeze over the juice of one lime, drizzle in olive oil and sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Mix well by hand.

 Let it rest for a few minutes, while preheating a grilling pan on high heat. Use a pair of tongs to put all the pieces of bell pepper, onion and chicken in the pan. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until the chicken is golden and cooked through. The pan will be quite hot, so keep moving the pieces around to get lightly chargrilled.

Warm up the tortillas in a dry frying pan, then divide them into serving plates. Put the grilling pan on a heatproof surface on the table, and squeeze more lime juice on the sizzling food. Carefully help yourself straight from the pan. Add salsa, guacamole, sour cream and grated cheese (aged Cheddar and/or Monterrey Jack are the obvious choices) to taste.

For a vegan version, use grilled tofu marinated with the same spices, a bit of olive oil, the juice of 1 lime, and a sprinkling red pepper flakes. Slice the tofu in 4, width-wise, marinate for 1 to 4 hours, flipping the pieces every half hour. Grill them 3 to 4 minutes on each side, to get nice charred marks. Let sit for a minute or 2, then slice into long strips. Grill the veggies separately, so the tofu doesn’t crumble. Omit the sour cream and grated cheese at serving.

I was never a fan of bottled salsa - even the hotter ones still taste bland, boring and, well, bottled. I am a sucker for fresh tomatoes, so I was eager to try the following little recipe, also from "Jamie's Food Revolution". It was such a success that some people who don't like salsa at all told me they loved it. Ha! Home-cooking kicks packaged food's ass once again!

3 cloves of garlic
3 to 5 scallions
1 to 2 fresh red chiles
6 ripe tomatoes
1 small handful of fresh cilantro
2 limes
olive oil
sea salt and pepper

Peel and finely chop the garlic. Trim and finely chop the scallions. Seed the chile and finely chop (1 chile for mild salsa, 2 for hot!). Pick the leaves off the cilantro and chop the leaves and the stalks. Chop the tomatoes is small pieces (or slightly bigger, depending on how chunky you want your salsa). Add all the ingredients to a bowl and add the juice of both limes, and a drizzle of olive oil. Mix well, taste, and adjust seasoning if necessary.

Now this makes a ton of salsa. It keeps in a sealed plastic container in the fridge for 3 or 4 days, so if you are making some for a quiet dinner for two, I recommend using a dozen cherry tomatoes instead of the regular tomatoes, 3 scallions, 1 or 2 garlic cloves and 1/2 a chile. Adjust the lime juice to taste. You'll have enough for your fajita feast, and won't waste any leftovers.

Now, a word of warning about cooking with fresh chile. The first time I made this salsa, I had no idea what I was doing, so I just sliced away, and added everything to my bowl, seeds and all. To make a long story short, my hands and upper lip felt like they were on fire for 2 days. Chiles are hot, ladies and gentlemen: handle them with plastic gloves (I often use simple sandwich bags, as I don't keep plastic gloves around the house... shocker, I know), remove the seeds and white skin from the inside and quickly wash every surface that came into contact with the chiles, hands included. I've heard horror story of people who were careless and rubbed their eyes, or even worse, went to the bathroom after handling fresh chiles unprotected. Trust me, you don't want to do that!

If you buy some chile with an obscure name, say Scottish Bonnets, and you have no idea how hot they are, refer to the Scoville scale ( before randomly throwing them in your food, and dose according to the info provided by the scale. You may just save yourself an ulcer!

According to the awesome "Veganomicon", the key to a good guac is great avocado. It shouldn't be too mushy or too hard; the fruit should just start to give when pressed gently. Their recipe is perfect for 2, but it is very easy to double or triple according to your needs. In case you live under a rock, a quick reminder to only make as much guacamole as you need, as it doesn't keep and turns brown and unappetizing if not eaten quickly!

1 ripe avocado
1 lime, juiced
1 small yellow onion, minced
Sea salt and ground pepper

Run a knife lengthwise all along the middle of the avocado. Firmly grasp each half and twist to separate the halves. Remove the pit by gently but firmly hacking a chef knife into the pit, gently twisting the knife and pulling it away from the avocado. Separate the peel from the avocado halves and place the flesh in a medium bowl. Drizzle with lime juice, sprinkle with minced onion, salt and pepper. Mash it all up with a fork to the desired consistency.

Add one or more of the following along with the onion, salt and pepper if you feel like pimping up your guac:

3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
1 ripe tomato, seeded and chopped
1 pinch ground cumin
1 fresh jalapeno chile, seeded and chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped

If your friends are as insane as mine and organize Fiesta Fridays when the mood strikes, and you want to bring them some fajitas goodness, here's what you do: double your quantities of chicken and vegetables and put the slices in a large plastic container; add your spices, lime juice and oil, put the lid on and shake vigorously to coat everything. Prepare your salsa, and keep it in the fridge until you are ready to go. Make the guacamole once you get to the party, because it will not take kindly to being carried around in a hot car or subway train. You can use a regular frying pan if you don't have access to a grilling pan; the ravenous masses will still be satisfied.

Serve these with sangria or Mexican beer to give your table an authentic hacienda feeling. A rosé wine, or a dry Spanish or Argentinian red wine would also make a fine complement to the bold paprika, lime and chile flavors.

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