Welcome to our new segment: Cooking with a Schlub! Ben came up with this idea when I made the Tilapia with the mushroom, caper, and white wine sauce. I said it was so easy even he could make it, with instruction, and it would still be good. So he came up with the idea of spending together time having me teach him how to cook, and making it part of the blog. These are segments for beginning cooks who are just learning the tricks of the trade. I decided to start out just about as simple as you can go–chicken fajitas.
The only thing that you have to worry about with chicken fajitas–I thought–was coming up with the spice rub for the chicken. But I forgot about all the other things there are to learn–like how to use a knife, how to chop properly, and the easy way to chop onions.
We started with the bell peppers and the onion. The first thing to learn is how to properly hold the knife. Ben had his thumb on the top of the knife. That is a no no! The way to get the best leverage with the knife, and the best flexibility with your wrist is to hold it with your thumb on the left side (if you are right handed), and the rest of your hand over the top.
The best lesson I learned while I was living in Washington, DC, came from the DC Central Kitchen (I can’t get it to make the link, so check out http://www.dccentralkitchen.org/). This amazing program takes homeless people and gives them job skills–they teach them how to cook and they run a catering service that hires the people who have been through their program. A group of my friends and I went to volunteer there one day to help make food to take to local food pantries. We were all corrected on our chopping technique. When you chop, you don’t want to make any chopping noise. You don’t want to take the tip of your knife off of the cutting board. You leave the tip down on the board and use a leavering motion (like using a large paper cutter). This allows you to go much faster and smoother. Once you get used to it, you can go at super speed. Ben is demonstrating proper chopping technique in the photos below.
Ben also learned the easiest way to chop an onion. Cut it in half through the root end. That means that there is a bit of the root part on each half of the onion–it helps keep them together and not fall apart. Leave the paper on the outside, because the easiest way to remove it is after you have cut it in half. Look on the side and take off the layer UNDER the obviously brown layer. You can just grab the whole thing, and take it off in one hunk. The layer under the brown layer is still papery and not good to eat. Now set the onion down on the cutting board cut side down (so it’s laying flat). Cut off the top of the onion (not the root end), so it’s gone. Now take the tip of your knife and slice the onion toward the root end. DON’T cut it all the way through the root. You are using the root to hold it all together. So leave yourself about 1/2 an inch that you don’t slice through. Keep going all the way across the onion. We stopped there, because we wanted long slices for the fajitas. But if you want to chop or dice the onion, keep going. Now turn the onion, and slice across the other way. This time, the slices will fall off. Keep going until you reach the end where you left the 1/2 inch from the root. Compost the root end. Now you have chopped the onion as easily as possible. COOKING NOTE: Here’s a bonus: to help prevent crying like a baby when you are copping onions you should rice the onion. After you have cut it in half, run the onion and the knife under cold water. That rinses off the chemicals that make you cry (mostly).
And now, introducing Ben to talk about picking spices for the chicken:
It was an arduous task that felt like it would take all my strength and patience. We started by sampling the different spices and realizing that the mustard might not have been as good as it used to be. Even with that we pushed through and decided that the spices were good enough to use. The first spice that we place in the bowl was garlic powder. We used a goodly amount and if you were to measure, it was about 1 and a half tablespoons. We continued by adding onion powder in about equal proportions and trusted our luck that it would all work out. Once we had the two main ingredients I went crazy and started adding all kinds of spices like chile powder and tumeric. It was all coming to a head when the cumin, corriander, mustard powder, salt and pepper were added. These were all added sparingly to ensure that their individual flavors were not overpowering. Once we had all of the components in a pile, I started to mix like there was no tomorrow. It took all of my strength but at the end they were mixed together. Before moving on, I tasted the mixture and adjusted it according to my own devine tastes. Exhausted, I added some cilantro to the spices and rubbed it on the chicken. Once it was on there was no turning back, we now were at the point of no return and had to cook it. I added olive oil to a pan, enough to lightly cover the bottom, and started the heating process. Normally I would have grilled it, but it was cold out and I am lazy. So after about two or three minutes the oil was ready. I knew that the oil was ready because it moved freely around the pan without much coaxing. The was the moment I had been waiting for, the time that I added the chicken. It sputtered and tried to spit but I pushed through the pain and kept cooking. After about five minutes I flipped the chicken. It was looking good, but I knew from past experience that undercooked chicken can lead to bad things. So I pressed on and continued to cook. In another two or three minutes the chicken was looking ready. To test it I took a fork and lightly pressed against it. It was showed some resistance, which is a good thing in this case, so I made the call and put them onto a plate to cool. While the chicken was cooking, I busied my self with sauteeing the vegitables that we had previously talked about. I preformed the same olive oil to the pan trick and I was off and running. Once the oil was warmed and flowing freely I added all of the vegitables. They started to cook and things were moving along when I decided to give them a quick mix and to break up the larger pieces. After about 10 to 12 minutes the vegitables were starting to brown slightly and soften in appearance. This is what I was looking for so I pulled them off the burner. As a final move I sliced up the chicken into thin strips. We now had all the important pieces to this dinner puzzle. We pulled out some tortillas and added some sour creme (and guac for those who can eat it without dying). To finish things off we added the chicken and vegitables to the tortillas and wrapped them up. Next stop gastric acids. Bony apotite, or how ever it is spelled.
Did I mention that Ben has a very developed sense of both humor and sarcasm? Well, you can look forward to his contributions on a fairly regular basis. The important thing about doing chicken fajitas is to make a nice Mexican-y rub for it. Most of you probably won’t have tumeric in your pantry (though you should give it a try. It will be familiar to your tastebuds from dill pickles), the rest are essential spices for a mexican type rub. The key is using your own taste. Put in more or less of a spice depending on if you like it. You can add others in there too, if you want. The important thing for a beginning cook is to smell everything before you put it in. That lets you know what type of flavors you are working with, and how much you want to use of each. Let your senses guide you. And then taste it, make sure that there isn’t too much of one spice or the other. This is a good recipe to let your creativity go and try new things.