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~ "Yes Virginia, there is a thing called a Taco Ring!" (One of my "I can't believe I'm posting this posts".) ~

IMG_8838"Count me in, I'll give it a try."  That's what I said on Facebook last week.  It's what I agreed to do, and I'm doing it.  I'm making a taco ring today.  Here's how it came down:  One of my hungry guy foodie friends, Jaqmes, posted a photo with a link to a recipe for a taco ring.  Cocktail-connoisseur friend, Jill, said she'd made it and it was quite good, especially if washed down with a six-pack of Corona.  For a moment, I thought Jill's cheese slid of her cracker and landed in the deep-end of her pilsner.  The thread continued.  Kendra, who's is loving learning to bake bread, and pastry-chef Teresa chimed in too.  In the end, at Jill's behest, we agreed that perhaps we should all forget our food-savvy pre-conceived notions for one afternoon and make a taco ring -- and post our experiences on Facebook.  After all, we are all in this food world together!

IMG_8676With my ingredients list in hand, my trip to and through the Weis market was stealth.  I went mid-morning to avoid the crowds, made eye contact with no one, and, kept my packet of taco seasoning mix strategically hidden underneath a small box of tomatoes.  This wasn't my first rodeo -- I've used Pillsbury crescent rolls before.  Debit card in hand I made it through the express checkout without incident.  I arrived home, removed my babushka, screwed the real license plate back on my car, mixed myself a cocktail and 0509betty04Reddi'd myself  to rock and roll.

Note:  I've added a few things to this recipe because I am food savvy and do have pre-conceived notions. They are each marked with an asterisk (*).  Feel free to omit them. 

2  8-ounce tubes crescent rolls

1 1/2  pounds lean ground beef

1/2  pound sweet sausage*

1  cup diced yellow onion*

IMG_83261/2  cup creamy refried beans*

1-ounce packet taco seasoning 

2  tablespoons ground cumin*

3/4-1 cup shredded cheddar

no-stick cooking spray

iceberg lettuce, grape tomatoes, black olives, additional cheddar, Wish-Bone Lite-Italian dressing

~ Step 1.  Place the ground meat, sausage and diced onion in a 3 1/2-quart chef's pan.  Over medium-high heat, saute until meats are IMG_8345cooked through, stirring almost IMG_8338constantly, using a spatula to break them up into small pieces as they cook, about 10 minutes.

~ Step 2.  Tilt the pan on an angle. Using a small ladle, remove and discard all of the fat and liquid from the bottom of the pan.

IMG_8359 IMG_8347~ Step 3. Stir in the taco seasoning and cumin, followed by the refried beans. The beans hold the meats together, and, I stirred 2 tablespoons of water into 1/2 cup of beans to make them extra creamy.

IMG_8368Remove from heat, cover, and set aside for 1 hour.

IMG_8685~ Step 4.  The recipe instructs to line a pizza pan with aluminum foil and spray the foil with no-stick cooking spray.  

Note:  I own a couple of fancy schmancy 11 1/2" French porcelain trays (oven/broiler fridge/freezer safe), so, I'm skipping the foil and just spraying one of them with cooking spray.

IMG_8691 IMG_8694 IMG_8697~ Step 5.  It's finally time for a geography lesson: North, East, South and West.  Open the first tube of crescent rolls, unroll them, and, use a sharp knife to separate them so there are no ragged edges.  Place four pieces of dough on the pan, as pictured, at points N, E, S and W.  Place four more on the pan, at points NE, SE, SW and NW. Open the second tube and place the next eight at all points in between.

IMG_8703 IMG_8715 IMG_8718~ Step 6.  Using a 2" ice-cream scoop as a measure, place 8 scoops of firmly-packed meat mixture on the widest part of every other piece of dough.  Trade in your scoop for an ordinary tablespoon and fill in the open spaces with all of the remaining meat mixture.  Once you see how it's done, it's oh so easy!

IMG_8742~ Step 7.  Sprinkle 3/4-1 cup of grated cheese over the meat, picking up any stray pieces that fall onto the pan.  One at a time, lift the pointed pieces of dough over the top, and tuck them underneath the center.  Using the palm of your hand and a light touch, apply a bit of pressure across the top of the ring to make sure the dough, the cheese and meat are all "kind of" adhered together.

Here's the big picture, all ready for the oven: 

IMG_8744~ Step 8.  Bake on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven 25-30 minutes.  Dough will be golden brown, cheese will be melted and meat will be bubbly.  Remove from oven and place pan on a cooling rack to cool 30-60 minutes prior to serving warm or at room temperature.

Here's the big picture, just out of the oven:

IMG_8768And here is a closeup of the big picture:

IMG_8789~ Step 9.  Place a shallow bowl in the center of the ring -- or don't.  The rest of this appetizer recipe is arbitrary:  fill the center with your favorite concoction of Tex-Mex  salad ingredients or salsa, or a dip like guacamole, and, don't forget the beer, lot's of beer because:

Taco ring rocks -- & so does my fun group of foodie FB friends!!!

IMG_8822"Yes Virginia, there is a thing called a Taco Ring!":  Recipe yields 16 appetizer-sized slices or 8 servings, or, 4.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; 3 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides & lid; spatula; small ladle; standard-sized 11 1/2" pizza pan; aluminum foil; 2" ice-cream scoop; tablespoon

PICT2701Cook's Note:  I told you this wasn't my first rodeo.  I grew up loving these now retro appetizers.  You can find ~ The "I Can't Believe I'm Posting this Recipe" Post: Cocktail Pigs in a Blanket (Pillsbury Crescent Dogs) ~ in Categories 1, 2, 20 & 26.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)


~ Tequila-Lime Skirt-Steak Fajitas (Tacos al Carbon)~

IMG_8667To a carnivore like me, tacos al carbon (skirt steak fajitas) are as close to food perfection as Tex-Mex fare gets.  They are the very first fajita I ever sunk my teeth into and the very first fajita I learned to make (even before fajita fever hit our nation during the 1980's).  The years were 1974 thru 1979 and our neighbors in our very first Happy Valley apartment were a Texas cowboy and his beautiful Mexican-American wife (who hailed from San Antonio):  Tom and Toni (Antoinette). I was only in my twenties and had absolutely no previous experience with any Tex-Mex food (Tom called it Texican), but, that changed in a hurry and I learned at the hands of a master!     

IMG_8374Like most people in their twenties and thirties, we four partied heartily on weekends (and even some weeknights).  We rarely felt the need to go anywhere other than our two apartments and we never gave cooking and eating at midnight or later a second thought either. Tacos al carbon was often one of Toni's late-night offerings, and, as per her stories, she prepared them as close to how her grandmother in Mexico did -- short of a campfire.

Toni learned a few things from me in my kitchen too (chicken fried rice was one of my late night offerings, and, she loved to help me make pirogi and stuffed cabbage), but, I most certainly got the better deal. This taco press was a birthday gift from her, and, yes folks, when we two gals cooked Texican, we made our own flour and corn tortillas!

IMG_8163Toni, who was born and raised in San Antonio, spent a great deal of time (as a child) in Mexico with her grandmother and great-aunts.  Toni explained that authentic tacos al carbon is a simple meal of the poor people: marinated, grilled skirt steak gets cut into strips and wrapped in flour tortillas with no fanfare and few garnishes.  Her grandmother served hers with grilled or sauted onions (because onions sweeten as they caramelize without the need for elaborate seasonings), and, never meddled with the flavor of the steak by adding bell peppers to the mixture.

In less than 10 minutes, Toni would have a skirt steak marinating in a mixture of lime juice, plenty of minced garlic, chopped cilantro, and, a couple of shots of tequila (one for her/one for me).  Without measuring, she threw in some chile powder, cayenne, cumin (the "3 C's of Texican cooking) and salt.  Her dry spices eventually became the base flavors for ~ Mel's Homemade Tex-Mex-Style Fajita Seasoning ~.  Just click on the Related Article link below to get my recipe! 

IMG_8261A bit of fajita (fa-hee-tah) history: Fajitas were originally named "tacos al carbon", with "al carbon" being the Spanish phrase for "cooking over coals".  They were served ready-to-eat-with-the-hands by wrapping strips of unpretentious and cheap (or free) skirt steak, cooked directly over a campfire or grill, in a flour or corn tortilla.  "Faja" the Spanish word for "strip, band, IMG_8258sash or belt", with "ita" added to the end of it, means "a little strip, band, sash or belt".  The dish dates back to cattle ranching life along the Rio Grande Valley regions of the Texas-Mexico border in the 1930's. Throwaway items (heads, entrails and meat trimmings) were given to the Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) as part of their pay, resulting in some of the first Tex-Mex border dishes:  IMG_8254barbacoa de cabeza (head barbecue), menudo (tripe stew) and, fajitas/arracheras (grilled skirt steak).  Because of the limited number of skirts per animal, the meat wasn't available for sale, so, for years it remained obscure to everyone except the vaqueros, butchers and their families.

BeefCutPlateA bit about the last three photos: The 18"-24" skirt steak is the diaphram muscle of the cow and is cut from the plate.  There is a tough membrane attached to it, which is almost always removed during butchering, which makes trimming the  fat really easy.  Photo #1:  Top of skirt trimmed of fat cap.  Photo #2: Bottom of skirt.  Photo #3.  Vacuum-sealed, folded-up skirt steak.

IMG_83861 1/2-2  pound skirt steak (Note: The steaks I purchase come fully-trimmed and this is their weight after trimming.)

1/2  cup lime juice, 3-4 limes

1/4  cup tequila

6  large garlic cloves

1  large japeno pepper, seeded and cut into quarters

1/4  cup chopped cilantro

2  tablespoons ~ Mel's Homemade Tex-Mex-Style Fajita Seasoning ~

IMG_8387 IMG_8394 IMG_8396 IMG_8405~Step 1.  In work bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade, place the garlic, japapeno and cilantro.  Put lid on processor and using 25-30 rapid on-off pulses, mince the vegetables.  Open lid, and, using a large rubber spatula, scrape down sides of the bowl.  Add the fajita seasoning, lime juice and tequila.  With the motor running, process for about 15 seconds.

IMG_8433 IMG_8417~ Step 2. Place skirt steak in a 1-gallon food storage bag, folding it to IMG_8425fit.  Add marinade to bag and squeeze it around to make sure the steak, even between the folds, is coated.  Marinate for 2 hours at room temperature or 6-8 hours in the refrigerator.

Tip from Mel:  Placing the bag of skirt steak in a 1-quart measuring container will make the liquid rise up over the meat, alleviating the need to re-toss the mixture during the marination process.

IMG_8442 IMG_8440~ Step 3.  If you have marinated your skirt steak in the refrigerator for 6-8 hours, return it to room temperature prior to cooking it, about 1-1 1/2 hours.  Prior to putting the skirt steak on the grill pan, slice 1 1/2 pounds of yellow or sweet onion into half-moon shapes (about 2 large onions after peeling).

IMG_8463 IMG_8449~ Step 4.  In a 12" skillet, heat 4 tablespoons corn oil.  Stir in 2 tablespoons Mel's Fajita Seasoning.  Add the onions, increase heat to medium-high and saute until onions are softened but crunchy in their centers. about 5 minutes.  Do not overcook.  You can thank me later.  Remove from heat and set aside (do not cover).

IMG_8479< This is a very creepy photo!

IMG_8470~ Step 5. Lightly spray grill pan with no-stick cooking spray and place over medium-high heat for about 1 minute.

Lift the steak from the marinade, allowing ample time for excess liquid to drizzle back into the bag.   Using a few paper towels, lightly dab the drippy tailend of excess moisture, but do not wipe surface of steak clean or dry.  Place the steak on hot grill pan.  Discard marinade. 

IMG_8510 IMG_8493~ Step 6. Grill steak on first side until bottom is sizzling and grill marks are prominent, about 4 minutes.  Using a fork and the aid of a spatula, flip steak over and grill on second side about 3 minutes, until sizzling and grill marks are prominent.  Yes, it really does cook that quickly.  Don't walk IMG_8539away and do not not overcook.

IMG_8523~ Step 7. Transfer steak to a cutting board and rest 8-10 minutes.

Read the following carefully.

Slicing instructions:

Cut the length of the skirt steak, with the grain, into 4 even-sized pieces. Give each piece a L or R quarter turn, and, holding your knife at a 30 degree angle, cut each piece, against the grain, into thin slices.

IMG_8585 IMG_8579~ Step 8. Return skillet of onions to stovetop and briefly reheat/warm over medium heat, about 1-1 1/2 minutes.  Add the sliced steak.  Using two large spoons, toss as you would a salad. Remove from heat and rest about 3-5 minutes.  Serve warm wrapped in 168"-round flour tortillas.

I always suggest performing quality control prior to serving: 

IMG_8595Tequila-Lime Skirt-Steak Fajitas (Tacos al Carbon):  Recipe yields 16, 8"fajitas or 4 servings.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; food processor; large rubber spatula; 1-gallon food storage bag; paper towels; grill pan, preferably a large, double-burner sized one, 18" x 12 1/2"; fork; metal spatula

PICT0029Cook's Note:  These simply superb steak fajitas deserve a simply superb side-dish, and sweet corn is just the ticket.  Click into Categories 4, 15 or 20 to get my instructions for ~ How to:  Roast or "Bake" Sweet Corn in the Oven ~!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014) 


~ Tex-Mex Campstove or Stovetop Chicken Fajitas ~

IMG_8131Fajitas (fa-hee-tas) -- oh so delicious and oh so easy to make too -- I never had to call my three boys or Joe to the dinner table twice on fajita night.  That was back in the mid-to-latter 1980's when close-to-authentic versions of fajitas surfaced nationwide on good Tex-Mex restaurant menus.  The poor and unpretentious fajita had 'gone Hollywood' --  flamboyant skillets of sizzling steak or chicken served tableside with warm flour tortillas, sauted vegetables and mounds of condiments were a delicious and fun dining experience for the entire family.  Like a wild fire in a dry forest, this meal spread from restaurant to kitchen tables, including mine.  I single out the 1980's because that was indeed the heyday for fajitas.  Why?  By the 90's, like their cousins the burrito and the taco:  they became just another dish of dumbed-down American fast food.

IMG_8163Unlike many mothers of that decade, one of the things I did not buy into were  those 1-ounce, salt-laden, store-bought seasoning packets -- I refused to use them, even for convenience.  I dabbled in making my own blend based upon what I knew to be true and taught hands-on (not told to me by a food manufacturer via the back of a foil envelope).  Just click on the Related Article link below to get ~ Mels Homemade Tex-Mex-Style Fajita Seasoning ~ recipe.  This all-purpose mildly-spiced blend is perfect for chicken, pork, shrimp or traditional skirt steak fajitas!

IMG_8242Even if you are using your own seasoning blend (which is certainly your prerogative), my post is full of fajita history, which you probably should know before making them for the first time.  For example: "faja" is the Spanish word for "strip, band, sash or belt", and, with an "ita" added to the end of it, it means "a little strip, band, sash or belt".  Back in the 1930's cattle ranchers on the Texas/Mexican border would give throwaway animal trimmings (skirt steak) to the Mexican cowboys (vaqueros) as part of their pay. They would grill this thin, flat meat over a fire, cut it into strips, wrap the strips in tortillas and eat them for breakfast, lunch or dinner.  

Once fajitas got known outside of the isolated cattle ranches of the Rio Grande Valley, Americans started making them with chicken, pork, shrimp or all-vegetable combinations. These variations require cutting some ingredients into bite-sized pieces (rather than strips), but whenever possible, alway try to stick to script and "stick to the strips"!   

In my kitchen, chicken fajitas came first, steak fajitas came later!

IMG_8254Joe and I did a great deal of traveling back in the 1980's, so, by the time I brought my version of authentic fajitas via the ones I had tasted on Southwestern restaurant menus into my kitchen, I was well-educated on what they should look and taste like.  That being said, I almost always made them with IMG_8261sliced chicken strips, rather than the traditional skirt steak.  Why?  Back then skirt steak was sold mostly to restaurants and only occasionally trickled into my local butcher shop. Chicken breasts were always available to me -- I had to special order skirt steak (or get lucky).  It's an entirely different story nowadays. Skirt steak is  everywhere, and, I'll be marinating it and sharing that fajita recipe with you next.

In my kitchen I cook chicken fajitas differently than steak fajitas.

When I'm using skirt steak, I marinate the meat for several hours, grill or pan-sear the entire piece until it is rare, cut it into thin strips then serve it all at once.  It's quick, easy and reliable.  

When you trade skirt steak in for chicken, it's "a different animal":  

IMG_9593Without getting too technical, boneless, skinless chicken breasts are randomly sized, meaning they all cook differently.  On the grill, it's almost impossible to get them all to cook to the desired degree of doneness (just cooked through to the center without drying them out) at the same time.  Recipes that solve the problem by pounding them to the same thickness are just plain wrong: that is not the proper texture for a proper fajita, so please don't do it.  Chicken filets/tenders are far superior in texture, and, I highly recommend you use them for fajita making. One other thing, marinating chicken in general is a complete waste of time.  Take it from me, my method takes all the guesswork and stress out of this and the results are wonderful:  moist, juicy, perfectly-cooked perfectly-spiced chicken with crisp-tender colorful vegetables.

IMG_94282 1/2-3  pounds chicken  filets or tenders, cut into bite-sized strips and/or bite-sized pieces

6  tablespoons corn oil

6  tablespoons ~ Mels Homemade Tex-Mex-Style Fajita Seasoning ~, substitute at your own risk*

1  pound yellow or sweet onion, cut into thin (slightly less than IMG_81891/2") bite-sized strips

8  ounces each:  green and red bell peppers, cut into thin (slightly less than 1/2") bite-sized strips

1-2  large jalapeno peppers, seeded and finely diced (optional)

IMG_8181the juice of one large lime

20  8"-round flour tortillas, warmed

condiments of choice:  Spanish rice, refried beans, salsa, guacamole, sour cream, shredded cheddar or Monterey jack cheese and/or chopped cilantro, always served to the side

* I doubt that my fajita spice blend can be substituted equally for those overly-salty seasoning packets.  Each 1-ounce packet contains about 4 tablespoons and instructs you to use 1 packet for each pound of meat.

IMG_9453~ Step 1.  Using a pair of kitchen shears, clip the visible tendon from each filet.  Don't worry about the rest that runs through the center as it is so thin it disappears when cooked.  Cut filets in half, halves into 3-4 strips and pieces.

~ Step 2.  Cut the onion and bell peppers into strips, keeping the onions separate from the peppers. Mince the jalapenos.  Set all aside.

IMG_8193 IMG_8201 IMG_8206 IMG_8215





IMG_8218 IMG_8226Step 3.  Heat oil in skillet over medium-high. Stir in seasoning.  Add chicken and saute, stirring constantly, until chicken is turning white, 2-3 minutes.  Add onions and cook until it looks like you have more chicken than onions, 3-4 minutes.

IMG_8238~ Step 4.  Add the bell and jalapeno peppers and continue to saute, stirring almost constantly, until they are cooked through, yet colorful and crunchy, about 4-5 minutes.  Do not overcook. Remove from heat and squeeze the juice of one lime evenly over the top, or, serve with lime wedges for individual portions.

Serve sizzling hot (immediately) with warmed flour tortillas and your favorite condiments to the side.

Mexican1011-1Note:  I place the entire skillet, or individual cast-iron skillets (which is fun), on the table along with bowls of condiments and a stack of warm tortillas so everyone can help themselves.  My family's favorite condiments are refried beans, guacamole, salsa and spicy Spanish saffron rice:

IMG_8275Tex-Mex Campstove or Stovetop Chicken Fajitas:  Recipe yields 16-20, 8" round fajitas, or, 4-6 servings, allowing 3-4 fajitas per person.

Special Equipment List:  kitchen shears; cutting board; chef's knife; large slotted spoon; small gravy ladle; 12" skillet, cast iron or nonstick

6a0120a8551282970b015433345133970cCook's Note:  In the event you are in need of a really good guacamole recipe to serve with your fajitas:  ~ Holy Guacamole!  It's the Second Day of Summer! + (Everything You Need to Know about the Avocado ~ can be found in 1, 4, 8, 10, 13, 14 or 15!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)