By Chef Meg Galvin, Healthy Cooking Expert at SparkPeople.com
Fajitas are one of those foods that you hear and smell before you see, especially when you order them at a restaurant. The onions and peppers sizzle amongst strips of meat, their intoxicating smells travel through the restaurant, and finally a skillet overflowing with food is presented to you, along with a platter of beans, rice, a stack of flour tortillas and all the trimmings.
Fajitas come from the Spanish word "faja," which means sash, skirt--or girdle. It referred to the type of meat originally used in the dish, skirt steak. When most of us eat fajitas as served, we'll likely need a girdle to get into our pants!
The fajita platter at a popular fast-casual chain has 850 calories, 36 grams of fat, and 2,440 milligrams of sodium (more than a day's worth!). Wow.
At its most basic, a fajita is grilled meat wrapped in a tortilla. The vegetables are a welcome addition, but most restaurants douse them in oil and salt.
As I set out to make over the fajita, I returned to the basics. I chose chicken instead of steak since red meat is something most of us eat less often these days. I seasoned the meat with a No Salt Fajita Rub. I added plenty of vegetables.
And instead of serving the fajitas inside tortillas, I serve them inside a roasted pepper. Instead of sour cream and loads of cheese, I topped mine with Avocado Cream, a lime-infused mix of Greek yogurt and avocado.
I call these Deconstructed Chicken Fajitas.
Keep reading to learn how to build a healthier fajita.
When you order fajitas out, they come with a stack of tortillas. Each 6-inch corn tortilla has 57 calories; each 6-inch flour tortilla has 104 calories. Those calories can really add up! Choose corn or whole-wheat varieties over the regular flour tortillas, and limit it to two corn tortillas or one whole-wheat one.
To grill the tortillas use a nonstick spray instead of vegetable oil or just spritz with water, fold in a paper towel, then microwave for a few seconds.
Consider skipping the wrap all together and serve your fajita on a bed of bright mixed greens or brown rice.
- Better yet, use a vegetable as a wrap! I love to use red peppers from the garden, or sweet banana peppers, raw or roasted.
Choose lean cuts of meat. Traditional fajitas were made with skirt steak, which is lean but not very tender. Other lean beef options hanger steak, sirloin, flatiron (top blade) or flank steak. Chicken breasts and pork shoulder yield great fajitas, and with fish, the possibilities are endless: shrimp, lobster, cod, perch, even scallops.
Extend the meat by mixing with healthier sources of proteins; black, red, pinto, even white kidney beans add fiber and taste. I usually go for the 50/50 rule. I like 2 ounces of meat and 2 ounces beans (1/4 cup) per fajita.
Bulk them up with veggies. In addition to the ubiquitous onions and peppers (which are in season right now), add tomatoes, mushrooms, squash and asparagus when they're in season.
- If you're using a tortilla, skip the rice. Most restaurants add it to fill you up for less money, but I prefer bulking up on vegetables. If you do choose rice, go for brown instead of white for more fiber and nutrients.
- Spice it up. Use chili, cumin, oregano, paprika, and red pepper rubs on lean cuts of meats like chicken breast or a low or no oil marinade to tenderize the tougher cuts like the flat iron steak or skirt steak. Don't forget the vegetables need some flavor, too! Sprinkle cumin seeds, lime zest, and fresh chopped cilantro over your vegetables right before serving.
- Cheese gets lost in the mix. Omit it to save calories--you won't miss it.
- When it comes to creamy toppings, choose sour cream or guacamole--not both.
- Focus on adding moisture without fat. Choose tomato salsas as a low-fat topping.
- Add roasted corn, smoked peppers, or mango to boost flavor and nutrition to your topping.
- In place of sour cream, consider using Greek yogurt, which has more protein but still has the tang.
- For my Avocado Cream I combined Greek yogurt and avocado for more complex flavor, but you can also try adding chopped cucumber, papaya, or even roasted peppers to the yogurt.
Fajitas are a great party food. Invite friends and family, and let everyone make their own signature fajitas.
Prepare one or two meat options and one vegetarian option then go wild with the vegetable and topping choices. Offer festive cereal bowls for eating fajitas with no wrappers or roasted peppers for those that like to eat their bowls.
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SparkPeople Healthy Cooking Expert Meg Galvin is a World Master Chef, culinary instructor, and the author of " The SparkPeople Cookbook: Love Your Food, Lose the Weight." A farmer's daughter and marathon runner, she lives in northern Kentucky with her husband and three teenage sons.