It’s grilling season again, time to consider the beauties of skirt steak. It’s best cooked very quickly, then cut against the grain, and served norteño style: wrapped in wheat floor tortillas, accompanied by only grilled onions and perhaps a simple, fresh salsa.
Does this sound something like fajitas to you? It should. It should sound even more like arracheras, the charcoal-grilled skirt steak of northern Mexico, more popularly known north of the border as fajitas. Here’s a little background on this marvelous, grill-worthy dish. After reading it, you’ll be ready to riff on fajitas to your heart’s content.
Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Nuevo León are Mexico’s plains states: vast, dry, rangelands that have grown Mexico’s beef and wheat for centuries. (Further south, pork and corn reign as food crops.) Like immigrant peoples in the US Southwest (which was, after all, once part of northern Mexico), norteños have long viewed themselves as ranchers, cattle people—cooks of simple, direct, vigorous dishes. The faraway Spanish and then Mexican governments in Mexico City, 1,000 miles to the south, promoted production of wheat and cattle in these far northern territories (wheat doesn’t thrive well south of 30° N.), and the farmers who headed into the deserts and dry plains of the north developed vast cattle and wheat holdings. To this day, southerners view norteños (as norteños do themselves) as cowboys. Wheat tortillas in Mexico are pretty much foods of the north, and in Sonora and extreme southern Arizona, they’re tissue-thin and immense, the better to wrap around arrecheras and Chihuahuan cheese.
Cooks on both sides of the mild-wintered Southwest US-Mexican border favor outdoor grilling and simple, portable antojitos (appetizing street foods) like burros, tacos, and quesadillas. Unlike their grilling counterparts in much of the U.S., however, Sonorans bank their fires and grill over indirect, gentler heat, a technique better suited to meat from range cattle. (If you’ve been cooking for a while with pastured beef, you have probably already discovered this technique.) The skirt steak in Tex-Mex fajitas is usually marinated for several hours in bottled salad dressings before grilling; norteño arrecheras is usually grilled without marinating.
Depending on how baroque you want your fajitas/arrecheras to be, grill some sweet, fiery, or both peppers along with the meat; lay a cut sweet onion or two on the grill for a couple of minutes; heat up some thin, fine white-wheat tortillas to receive the dripping meat and vegetables, and you’ve got yourself as fine and simple a meal as you could wish. And you do want the best wheat flour tortillas you can find: they make all the difference to this satisfying border dish.
Arrecheras or Fajitas
Buy 1–1½ pounds of skirt steak, preferably from pastured or rangeland beef. Marinate it or not, using a bottled salad dressing or a tablespoon of olive oil, ¼ cup of fresh lime juice, some minced garlic, and pickled (canned) jalapeños. 3/4–1 hour should do it if you’re marinating the meat. Cut some sweet onions in half and brush their cut surfaces with olive oil; do the same with chile or sweet pepper strips, if you’re using them.
Heat up your grill, and wait until the coals have become gray. Divide them slightly so there’s a space between the two piles. Now you’re ready to grill your skirt steak, and this will be quick: give the entire chunk of meat meat 5–6 minutes per side. Let it sit for about 5 minutes before slicing it, and slice across the grain—if you cut the meat with the grain, you can chew it forever, and you’ll still be terrified to swallow it.) Array the arrecheras/fajitas across a warmed flour tortilla, add grilled vegetables and/or fresh salsa (or not), roll your burro or burrito up neatly, and tuck in.
Salsa del Norte
Nothing simpler: you can start this on the grill, too.
Grill about a pound of paste (Roma; plum) tomatoes in their skins, or cook them under your range’s broiler. Put them in a blender, add ½ a white onion cut in chunks, a few fresh jalapeños (control the amount of heat by removing their white membranes and seeds), a couple of garlic cloves, about 1 teaspoon of salt, a couple of tablespoons of vinegar or lime juice, and a handful of fresh cilantro. Buzz these together until you like the texture. Taste, and if need be, add a pinch or two of sugar to mellow out the salsa.