Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Fantastic Fajita Bowls!

As a result of doing some rearranging and spring cleaning in my kitchen, I've been on a cookbook kick lately. I took for granted all the wonderful cookbooks I have in my collection and figured I better put them to use. So having gone through 8 of my America's Test Kitchen Companion Books, I made notes of what recipes I could make using what I have on hand.

For lunch today, I used a recipe from the 2005 America's Test Kitchen Live! cookbook and the 2007 America's Test Kitchen Favorites cookbook for a Mexican-inspired meal. We enjoyed chicken fajitas sans tortillas, but over Mexican rice instead. As always, everything came out fabulous and I learned some great tricks that really made a difference in the dishes.

To make the chicken fajitas, the 2007 America's Test Kitchen Favorites recipe (pages 148 - 151) was made for cooking on an outdoor grill; however I made some adaptations to cook it indoors. What we wanted: Chicken fajitas that don't rely on a truckload of toppings for flavor - just smoky grilled vegetables and tender, well-seasoned pieces of chicken that taste great on their own.

What we learned: Briefly marinate the chicken breasts in an acidic mixture of lime juice and oil (along with a little Worcestershire for smokiness and depth and some jalapeno and cilantro for brightness) for best flavor. A combination of green and red bell peppers creates a pleasing contract of bitter and sweet.... Toss a small amount of extra marinade with the chicken and vegetables just before service for an added burst of flavor.

Keys to a Better Marinade: This marinade transforms bland chicken in just 15 minutes. We found that a generous dose of lime juice and a shot of Worchestershire sauce (or soy sauce) were key. The lime juice adds acidity, while the Worchestershire lends smoky, salty depth.

I really have to agree with the reasoning behind the recipe itself. It really had some amazing flavor - mildly spicy with citrus tones that really made it fresh. Here is my adapted recipe for Chicken Fajitas (Indoors on a Grill Pan):

1/3 cup juice from 3-4 limes
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons dark brown sugar
1 jalapeno chile, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro leaves
salt & ground black pepper to taste
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 medium red onion, peeled & cut into rounds
1 cup frozen, sliced multi-colored bell pepper strips

1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the line juice, 4 tablespoons of the oil, garlic, soy sauce, brown sugar, jalapeno, cilantro, salt and pepper. Slice the chicken breast into strips. Place the chicken and marinade in a quart sized storage bag (Ziploc) and refrigerate 15 to 30 minutes.

2. After the chicken has marinated, heat a grill pan over medium high heat. Place chicken and marinade in grill pan, tossing until cooked and the marinade is absorbed/evaporated. The chicken will start to brown and caramelize.

3. When the chicken starts to brown and caramelize, add the sliced red onion and frozen (or fresh) bell pepper strips. Cook until onions and peppers begin to caramelize.

4. Enjoy with flour tortillas or Mexican Rice.


For the Mexican Rice I served my chicken fajitas with, I normally prepare it quickly over the stove top with canned tomatoes. However using a recipe from the 2005 America's Test Kitchen Live! cookbook (pages 167-169), I learned some new tricks that made even better Mexican Rice.
What we wanted: Mexican rice that was rich tasting without the greasiness.

What we learned: Rinse the rice to remove excess starch and then fry it in a modest 1/3 cup of oil for a rice but not greasy flavor. Use fresh tomatoes for the best flavor, but add a little tomato paste for color. Bake the rice to ensure even cooking and finish with chiles, cilantro, and lime juice.

Again, America's Test Kitchen didn't fail me. I was a bit skeptical about the recipe because it was much different from how I normally prepare it... however delivered some amazing results. The rice was flavorful, tender and even better than what I've had at local Mexican restaurants. Here is my adapted recipe for Mexican Rice:
2 medium ripe tomatoes, cored & quartered
1 1/2 medium white onions, peeled & quartered
2 medium jalapeno peppers
2 cups long grain white rice
1/3 cup olive oil
4 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 cup homemade chicken stock
1 cup water
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup minced fresh cilantro leaves
1 lime, cut into wedges for serving

1. Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Process the tomatoes and onions in a food processor or blender until smooth and thoroughly pureed, about 15 seconds, scraping down the bowl if necessary; you should have2 cups. Remove the ribs and seeds from the 2 jalapenos and discard; mince the flesh and set aside.

2. Place the rice in a large fine-mesh strainer and rinse under cold running water until the water runs clear, about 1 1/2 minutes. Share the rice vigorously in the strainer to remove all excess water.

3. Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed straight-sided 12-inch ovenproof saute pan or Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Drop 3 or 4 grains of rice into the oil if the grains sizzle, the oil is ready. Add the rice and fry, stirring frequently, until the rice is light golden and translucent, 6 to 8 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium, add the garlic and jalapenos, and cook, stirring constantly until fragrant, about 1 1/2 minutes. Stir in the pureed tomato mixture, chicken broth, water, tomato paste, and salt. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Cover the pan and transfer to the oven. Bake until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender, 30 to 35 minutes, stirring well after 15 minutes.

4. Stir in the cilantro to taste. Serve immediately, passing the lime wedges separately.