Summer Meal Series #3: Skillet Cilantro-Lime Chicken Fajitas and “Poor Man’s” Spanish Rice

What’s on the table this summer?

Chicken Fajitas

One of my favorite ways to start a great meal is to look at the grocery store flyers.

This week, for example, I noticed that one of the grocery stores I regularly shop at had both chicken breasts and small soft tortilla shells on sale. When I see a combination like that, one thing immediately pops into my mind: Chicken fajitas.

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I love fajitas. They’re full of carmalized vegetables and all sorts of interesting flavors. Plus, they’re not all that hard to cook – all you really need is a skillet and a bowl.

The method I use is based loosely on the method described in one of my favorite cookbooks, The Best 30-Minute Recipe. I basically took their “Skillet Steak Fajitas” recipe and started modifying it, adding techniques and flavors I’ve found in other places.

What You’ll Need

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20 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast (you can have a little more or a little less)
1 tablespoon olive oil (for marinade)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil (for cooking)
2 bell peppers, cored and sliced thin
1 red onion, sliced thin
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon chili powder
2 tablespoon lime juice (lemon juice can work in a pinch)
1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar

You’ll also need some fajita shells, the number depending on how loaded you make the fajitas.

The expensive part of this recipe is the chicken and the fajita shells. Everything else is largely flavoring or fairly inexpensive vegetables. Thus, this is a perfect recipe to make when chicken and fajita shells are on sale. Or, even better – plan ahead a bit and pick up one of them on sale, then wait a while for the other one.

Chicken Fajitas: Step by Step

1. Cook the chicken breasts in a skillet.

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A few things to notice here.

First, I used the vegetable oil in the skillet before I started cooking. This keeps the chicken from sticking to the pan while cooking and helps a bit with the caramelization.

Second, I sprinkled some black pepper on the chicken as I cooked it. This is just pure flavor.

Also, note the meat thermometer over to the right. If you’re cooking any kind of meat, you need to have a meat thermometer to ensure that it’s well-cooked. Poultry needs to get to 180 F to kill off any harmful bacteria. I check it regularly while cooking and pull the meat off when it gets above 175 F (the temperature continues to go up a few degrees after you pull it off because the hotter portions on the outside continue to distribute heat to the inside).

2. While the chicken is cooking, chop up the two peppers and the onion:

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You can see my copy of The Best 30-Minute Recipe in the background there. The “bookmark” in it is actually a homemade sleeve for my favorite chef’s knife, made out of some spare cardboard and electrical tape. Seriously.

Keep the onion pieces fairly large. My pieces may be on the large side of what you’re looking for, but you can easily cut them too small. You want them to brown a bit when cooking – they’ll be delicious.

3. Make the marinade that the chiken will soak in:

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This is just a combination of the remaining ingredients: the olive oil, the chili powder, the juice, the cilantro, the Worcestershire sauce, and the brown sugar. Just put it all in a bowl, mix it around until it looks fairly consistent, and wait.

The cilantro came freshly out of our garden:

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We have a ton of cilantro this year because we had a lot of extra “volunteer” cilantro from last year, far beyond what we expected. Time to make salsa, perhaps?

So, what’s next?

4. When the chicken breasts are finished, pull them out of the skillet and put them directly on a plate

You can just let this plate sit out, or you can put it in the oven at 180 F or so for a while – either one is okay.

5. Cook the vegetables

Just toss ‘em all in the skillet together!

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You’ll want to do this over medium heat. Ideally, the leftover drippings from the chicken helps to brown the vegetables and infuse an amazing flavor into them.

Keep cooking the vegetables and stirring them regularly until the onions start to get nice and brown around the edges. It’s really up to you how long you cook them – just cook them until you’re happy.

6. While you’re cooking the vegetables, tear apart the chicken breasts

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What I do is use two forks. I use one to hold the breast in place, then I use the other one to tear the chicken to shreds, usually by pulling that second fork through the chicken away from the first fork. It shreds pretty easily.

What this leaves you with is chicken with lots of soft tendrils coming off of it. Those tendrils increase the surface area of the chicken – and that’s when magic happens! When the chicken pieces are tossed into the marinade (which is what you do after tearing it up), those soft tendrils absorb and hold that marinade, adding tons of flavor to the chicken.

That’s pretty much it.

7. Get your tortillas out, put some meat on them, put some vegetables on them, and eat!

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One the Side: “Poor Man’s” Spanish Rice

What about that “poor man’s” Spanish rice on the side there, though? It’s really easy, too. Just cook a cup of brown rice according to the directions on the rice you purchase. However, replace half a cup of the water with about 3/4 of a cup of salsa (whatever you happen to have on hand works) before you even start cooking it. Cook the rice, fluff, and serve.

If you’d like, of course, you could just eat the rice with the fajita ingredients on top and skip the tortillas entirely (which is essentially what my son did).

The batch above made enough for two adults and two children for dinner, two adults for lunch the following day, and two adults for lunch a later day (the remnants were frozen). Our cost per meal wound up being less thn a dollar. Yes, that plate above cost less than $1 worth of ingredients.

That’s cheap, tasty, and healthy. And pretty easy, too.

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  1. Vicky says:

    I think you just showed me what I’m making for dinner tonight.

  2. Leah says:

    This is one of our favorite meals at my house. And if we want to get “fancy” (read: when steak is on sale), we gussy it up nice. We also throw in avocado if that’s on sale. You can actually do the chicken ahead of time and freeze it like that for a really quick, easy meal (just have to defrost & heat up the chicken in one skillet while doing veggies in the other).

    I’ve never done the marinade with the shredded chicken, and I am so trying that!

    Also, brilliant on the Spanish rice and cheaper than buying the boxed stuff. I love rice and beans too — do you guys eat a lot of that? I’d love you to do a post on your take on rice and beans. Right now, I just buy the kind in the red and black foil bag.

  3. Leah says:

    PS we often do lots of chicken like that, since it’s also perfect for doing chicken hotdish (bake/casserole/whatever you call it in your area), chicken pot pie, etc. If you get raw chicken on good sale, you can actually just cook it all in the oven on cookie sheets and then shred it up to freeze for a wide variety of frugal meals.

  4. Steph says:

    I love making meals like this in summer.
    If I find chicken thighs on sale, I’ll cook up a big batch in the crockpot with taco seasoning until it starts falling apart. I freeze it in batches and then we have several meals worth for taco or fajita night.
    We make a lot of Tex-Mex style soup, so I use leftover soup to make Spanish rice.

  5. Elaine says:

    I love that beautiful, delicious, healthy food can be inexpensive as well. I second Leah’s comment – my husband and I always bake a ton of chicken and then freeze it for later. It’s nearly no work on our part and really stops the “Going Out to Eat” monster in his tracks.

  6. Perry says:

    In 2006 the USDA lowered it’s recommended temp for poultry, from 180 degrees to 165.
    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0EUY/is_19_12/ai_n16362148/

  7. Jackie says:

    Thank you thank you thank you for the salsa in rice idea! Fajitas… yeah, whatever, nothing new to see here. But salsa in rice is exactly the kind of cooking hack that I love to stumble onto. That is the kind of trick that brings cooking into reach for those of us who never learned and get intimidated by long ingredient lists.

    I use a similar short-cut to make guacamole. Smash up an avocado, add some salsa. Done.

  8. Beth says:

    I, too, appreciate the salsa-in-rice trick. My husband and I have been looking for an easy way to jazz up rice for use with Mexican dishes.

    About the meat thermometer–I hope the lack of one won’t prevent anyone from trying this. They’re not necessary if you cook until the juices run yellow/clear instead of pink.

    @Jackie: Try adding a dash of garlic salt and some lime juice, too, if they’re handy. MM-mm. I’m glad avocados are coming into season!

  9. Oh nice! That’s such an awesome plate. You can make it even cheaper by using corn tortillas! My husband doesn’t like flour tortillas and ever since we switched I noticed corn tortillas are a fraction of the price.

  10. anne says:

    we’re making a similar dinner tonight- i have chicken marinating already- i just sat down from doing it and came here to read. what a coincidence!!

    for our marinade i use similar ingredients- olive oil for starters, but then i put in the juice of a lemon instead of lime, some adobo, a sazon packet, black pepper, and cumin.

    i’m going to try your rice- i bought a 3 lb container of fresh salsa and it’s just sitting in the fridge. all of a sudden my husband doesn’t like salsa any more. ugh.

    when i make rice, i’ve found making sure the water is boiling before i put in the oil and rice is the key to making fluffy rice. i think i’ll do it the same way as always, and put in the salsa just after i stir in the rice.

    thank you so much for choosing tonight to put this dinner menu up- perfect timing!!

  11. JK says:

    At virtually every meal we cook way too much of some component so we have a headstart on the next meal. With fajitas, the chicken is usually a leftover from the prior night. We cook 2-3 times the peppers and onions we’ll need for the fajitas and the leftovers are chopped up and used in western omlettes, chili or spaghetti sauce the next day. It’s a rare meal at our house where everything is cooked “fresh” that day. It’s always faster to cook extra of something when you’re at it and save time at the next meal.

    Great rice suggestion. I have a similar recipe but it calls for frying the uncooked rice first and then adding the salsa and water. If this works just as well I’ll happily skip that step.

  12. Brittany says:

    “Fajita shells” Ha! I miss the Midwest sometimes.

    And how are they the most expensive part of the meal? $1.45 for 20 for flour, cheaper for corn (ick). That hardly makes them comparatively more expensive than bell peppers… 50 cents+ per pepper… red ones are often 3 times that.

  13. lurker carl says:

    If you want to add some soluble fiber to that meal, substitute barley for rice.

  14. Pat says:

    Well done, one note though poultry only needs to be cooked to 165 degrees to be safely consumed. That’s the temperature that salmonella is killed at.

  15. Amanda says:

    To maximise nutrient absorption from the brown rice, soak all day in water and a little bit of lemon juice. This also cuts the cooking time by about ten minutes.

  16. Christopher says:

    It looks like the vegetables would benefit from being cooked in two batches. The pan seems a little crowded, and they likely steam more than they sear.

  17. MC says:

    I love pulled chicken. Here’s a tip that might save your hands (and some time). Use a food processor! I like to use a slicing blade; it takes 1/10 of the time and works just as well. Granted, hand pulled is still a nicer texture, but it’s worth it.

  18. Yummy, looks delicious from the pictures and its pretty economical too, so you can not beat this. I will try it.

    –ConsumerMiser

  19. michael bash says:

    I, and we I suppose, await the day when, as you learn about cooking, realize that thighs are not only cheaper but tastier. Suggest you start reading “Simply Recipes”, perhaps the best cooking site I visit. They know this secret and many others.

  20. brad says:

    dangling participle!! man, those fajitas look good! i like this series alot!

  21. Beth in OH says:

    @#11-Amanda’s tip about brown rice: Thank you, I’m going to try that! I just bought a bunch of red, orange & yellow bell peppers on sale for $1.00/each, and I’ve always got frozen bl/sl chicken breasts in the freezer. I grow my own cilantro too, and have all ingredients in the kitchen. I’ll pick that up, and it’ll be fajitas & rice for several days! Oh yum!

    @#7-Anne on her own marinade with adobo & sazon: Your meat doesn’t end up too salty? Both those ingredients have salt as the 1st ingredient. LOL, my ankles & fee are swelling just typing that out! hehehehe

  22. alilz says:

    That looks pretty good. Although I would use a bigger pan or do the veggies in batches, from the picture they don’t look very caramelized.

    Also, are you using 1 tsp of chili powder for your kids?

    Personally when I make something like that I use 1-2 tablespoons of chipotle chili powder (which is made only from chipotle peppers and not mix like regular chili powder) and 1 teaspoon of cumin.

  23. deRuiter says:

    ….. carmalized is spelled caramelized. Two minutes to run spell check would avoid this, as would editing. The pan used for vegetables is too small and the previous comments are correct, the vegetables have not caramelized, they have steamed.

  24. Ralph says:

    Looks great. 180F is way too much for chicken. Even the USDA says 165F for chicken.

  25. marta says:

    @michael (#14):

    I second the Simply Recipes rec; it’s one of my favourite websites, and I have adopted quite a few of their recipes. Great stuff.

  26. Adam says:

    This is actually a low sodium, low sugar, unprocessed dish that is inexpensive and tasty. Good one Trent, I approve and I’m a picky sonovagun when it comes to food posts.

    My own variation is to cook the chicken in strips (rather than shredding it), then cook a green pepper and a big spanish onion in strips, then re-add the chicken and dump in about half a jar of organic low sodium (6% or less per serving of the RDA) salsa, and mix thoroughly. Its very tasty and very fast.

    Whole wheat tortillas will add soluble fibre, and you will want to watch the sodium content of the tortillas. Some of them are almost 20% of the RDA per tortilla, which is nutty! Your kid had the right idea just eating the veggies, chicken and brown rice without the “shells” (lol at “fajita shells” btw).

  27. yvonne says:

    Yummy Trent. The only thing better than a man that cooks is a man that cleans the kitchen afterwards.
    When I make the spanish rice, I add all the ingredients,except the chicken, into the rice with low sodium chicken base, a can of diced tomatoes that have jalapenos added, and black beans. All of this cooks together while rice is cooking. I add grilled chicken form a previous nights leftovers. My family stuck their noses up until tasting it. Sour cream and/or cheese optional.
    This is gluten and dairy free.

  28. Kittie says:

    I usually sprinkle the chicken with garlic powder, salt, pepper, paprika, and parsley flakes. Sauté in a little olive oil then slice thinly while the vegetables cook in the same pan. I love one pot meals! This is awesome left over on a salad and for those who need to watch carbs, Chicken fajita on salad instead of tortillas is delicious. I use a blend of salsa and low fat sour cream as a dressing.

  29. J. O. says:

    Sounds and looks delicious. I think this is a bit light on protein, though, if three chicken breasts made 6 adult and 2 kid meals. This could be easily and cheaply supplemented by adding beans to the rice as Leah suggested above.

    Looking forward to the rest of the recipes!

  30. Kai says:

    Seriously? You’re marinading it AFTER you’ve cooked the chicken? Does that even still count as a marinade?

    This would be much tastier if you marinaded the raw chicken, and much healthier if you then grilled it rather than fried it.

    When you already have tortillas, I fail to see any benefit in adding rice to a fajita meal. It’s not like you’re short on starch..

  31. alilz says:

    I didn’t catch the marinade mistake, you can’t marinade cooked meat. You can flavor it but you can’t marinade it. Technically marinades are used to break down the fibers and help tenderize meat, which you can’t do after you’ve cooked it.

  32. triLcat says:

    Warning warning warning. Cilantro is not for beginners. People who aren’t used to cilantro frequently dislike it very very very much. If you’re not a cilantro fan, don’t throw it into your recipe just because Trent did. It might absolutely ruin your food. If you’ve never cooked with cilantro before, try adding a small amount to a side salad before the first time you add it to a real recipe. If you don’t like it, then just leave it out.

    (there was a paper written about this recently – some people’s palette recognizes cilantro as a non-food and it tastes terrible to them – like soap.)

  33. anne says:

    @ triLcat- that’s exactly it!!!!! i don’t know when it changed for me, but cilantro did used to taste like soap. i know exactly what you mean, and that’s even how i used to describe it. but now i love it. i wish i could know exactly what changed and when.

  34. marta says:

    @triLcat, anne: there is even a website called ihatecilantro dot com.

    It was the first time I heard of some people tasting it like dirty dishwater or soap. Cilantro is a staple in our cuisine, so I have never met anyone who couldn’t stand it.

    I can see how that could happen, though.

  35. Brittany says:

    Why Cilantro Tastes Like Soap: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/14/dining/14curious.html

    Basically, it’s all in your head…

    “If the flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety. We react strongly and throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs.”

  36. J. O. says:

    @ alilz & deRuiter

    I understood that caramelizing simply means cooking for a long time until the natural sugars turn the vegetables brown and sweet-flavoured. Wouldn’t the size of the pan be unrelated to this? Now if you were to saute the vegs, the pan would ideally be larger.

  37. J. O. says:

    @ triLcat

    Thanks for the warning about the cilantro. Good to know. As someone who finds that rosemary tastes like mold, I just might be one of those who tastes cilantro differently too.

  38. Gretchen says:

    @J.O
    Once I ordered a Rosemary roll at a bakery and had a guy question how I could eat such a disgusting item.

    If I’m shredding chicken, I boil it in “flavored” water with onions and whole peppercorns.

  39. alilz says:

    @ J.O.

    There are a couple issues but the main thing is that by overcrowding the pan it doesn’t allow for the moisture released by the veggies to evaporate properly.

    And because the moisture doesn’t evaporate it starts to create steam and that is what ends up cooking the veggies.

    Also even if you stir the veggies alot most of them aren’t going to be touching the bottom of the pan, which is what causes things to fry – the heat of the metal.

    Another thing to note is it takes a long time for onions to be truly caramelized, generally around 30 minutes.

  40. alilz says:

    Plus if you look at the pictures of the raw veggies and the cooked there’s not that much of a difference, there’s some browning on the onions but not much different than what you would see on regular sauted onion.

  41. tarynkay says:

    If you’re finding the “fajita shells” too pricey, it is pretty easy to make flour tortillas and they taste approximately 700x better than the store bought ones.

  42. Jeroen says:

    First of all: good call on the lime and red onion, that’s what really gives it the fajita flavour.

    2 remarks, though:

    1/ marinading works better if done beforehand. When I make fajitas, it’s usually left-over chicken that i shred and marinade over night in the fridge. Then I reheat them together with the vegetables and usually add some kind of salsa too.

    2/ I know that americans like to overcook meat, but even the FDA lists ’15 seconds on 165°F’ as the ‘safe’ temperature for poultry, not 180. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_Control_Point)

  43. Holly says:

    @ #25 & #26, re: Cilantro – I’ve experienced soapy tasting cilantro, but I’ve been told that it is because TOO MUCH cilantro was used. Use just a little bit to start off with until you figure out the amount that works best for you.

  44. mellen says:

    About fajita shells, I just noticed how much sodium most of them have (I’m watching my sodium intake during my pregnancy). I used to think I was doing well where sodium is concerned b/c I rarely add it to food and when I do, it’s in small quantities but we use tortillas a lot and one of them can have 25% of your (recommended) daily intake of sodium! That’s a lot.

  45. Pam says:

    I just cooked these for diner last night.

    Like most people I usually marinade the chicken before cooking so this was a nice change. I also never have shredded it before.

    This tasted great.

  46. Carrie says:

    I recently made homemade tortillas for the first time. Way more tasty than store bought! I haven’t run a price check on it, but I would be surprised if homemade tortillas cost more than store bought. I was planning to freeze some to see how they held up, be we ended up eating them all!

    And, cilantro – yes, be careful if you’ve not had much cilantro before. I made some fresh pico de gallo for the first time a few weeks ago, and discovered cilantro has a soapy taste for me. I’m using it, but in small amounts so I can become accustomed to the taste. I’ve been able to use more each time I make a batch.

  47. Courtney says:

    Instant brown rice is both quick & very healthy. Cook’s Illustrated (an organization well worth checking out, if you haven’t already – they’re like the Consumer Reports of food) recommends it, and it’s pretty cheap.

    Also, I would make this with a chunk of cheap meat that I had crock-potted all day with cheap salsa. Tah-dah – instant super-tender meat.

    Today I did this with a pork roast (bought as part of a whole pig from an organic local rancher, for about $3/lb for the whole pig) that I had frozen. Yummy in the tummy, plus the leftovers make kick-butt shredded pork barbecue the next day.

    Note that you could also crockpot the rice & salsa on low or warm during the day, and come home to essentially a cooked meal.

    I left out the sides. Fajitas are a meal in and of themselves, to me, and you get the good carbs with lots of fiber and such in the veggies, as opposed to the processed ones in white rice.

  48. Caroline says:

    I need to make these!!

  49. Jamie says:

    You saved dinner tonight! I was planning to make something completely different for dinner when I realized I was missing an essential ingredient. I was able to whip these up in no time at all! I was really impressed with how flavorful the chicken was- thanks so much!

  50. Kim says:

    We had this for dinner tonight, repurposing the leftover Grilled Margarita Chicken we had a few nights ago. We forgot the cilantro, but I’m not sure it would have improved the dish for us. We also had the rice, using some short-grain brown rice leftovers we had from another meal, and reheated it with the salsa. I loved it!

    Thanks for the great recipe, Trent. It’s a keeper in our house!

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