Cooking fajitas for twenty six

Last summer my office started offering Free Lunch Fridays. The premise was anyone who participates has to do so in the lunchroom. Thus, it gets the office diners like me to break away from their work. Lunches are frugal, typically make-your-own sandwiches, Costco pizza or the six-foot-long Subway laden with near-lethal levels of mustard and mayonnaise. To add some variety, we started a “guest chef” option on the first Friday of the month. Zach made crepes in January, Dave did chili in February and rock-star chef Ardith made chicken and rice soup, tomato bisque, and a variety of desserts.

When I snagged “Cinco de Mayo” earlier this year, I had grand ambitions to do chicken fajitas with salsa, homemade tortillas, and a capstone of a piñata, because the only thing funnier than seeing blindfolded kids wailing on a paper mache animal full of candy is a bunch of blindfolded engineers calculating ways of optimizing their wailing on a paper mache animal full of candy.

That was the intention.

As the software schedule slipped, it was apparent that this was extreme overkill, and definitely beyond the $60 budget.

I surveyed the company to find out (a) how many people were planning to participate (b) which dietary constraints I needed to be aware of and (c) if I was slightly over budget, would they mind kicking in a buck. Turnout was going to be high. Dietary restrictions included the expected mix of low-salt, low-carbs, not-too-spicy, no mayonnaise, plus one comment about “no penicillin or sulfa drugs.” As a discretionary precaution, I scratched putting fresh-ground erythromycin in the marinade. Everyone agreed they’d kick in a buck if I was over budget.

The salsa, fajitas (below), vegetables and beans were made without added salt:

Fajitas — — serves (26) 3
(12 pounds) 2 Chicken breasts
(8T) 1 t minced garlic
(2 bunches) 1/2 bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped, stalks and all
(1 1/2 C) 4 T lime juice
(1/2 C) 2 T oil

  1. Marinate the chicken breasts in the remaining ingredients for at least two hours. Overnight in the fridge is okay.
  2. Grill. Time varies based on the grill and thickness and the grill’s machismo. My grill takes about 5 minutes per side.
  3. Let the chicken sit for five or ten minutes before slicing. (It’ll be much moister.)

As became evident as soon as I started cooking, my grill was designed to cook quantities for four people. I had to get creative, both grilling (to sear in flavor) and some baking (to finish the actual cooking) the meat.

So the lone vegan would be able to partake, I included some grilled vegetables. These were consumed quickly:

Grilled squash and peppers —
3 zucchini
3 yellow squash
3 red bell peppers

  1. Preheat the grill. Boil some water.
  2. Put the peppers on the grill. Though this may seem counter-intuitive, you want the skins to char.
  3. Slice the zucchini and squash lengthwise into 1/4″ sheets.
  4. Par-boil the zucchini and squash for 3 minutes. Drain.
  5. Grill the zucchini and squash 2 minutes per side
  6. Remove the charred peppers from the grill. Let cool, then peel the skin off. Remove the stem and seeds. Slice.

As a filler, I also made la fruta musical, pinto beans:

4 C pinto beans
3 T garlic
3 bay leaves
1 t cumin
1 onion, chopped

  1. Soak the beans overnight in a large pot of water.
  2. Boil everything for about an hour, or until the beans are tender.
  3. Remove the bay leaves!

Complementing all this was 2 pounds of finely grated cheddar, 2 pounds of Monterey Jack, 36 tortillas, two bags of tortilla chips (one blue, one yellow) and a container of sour cream.

Final thoughts:

  • I kept the budget down by timing my purchase of bulk items with grocery store sales. This unfortunately meant my freezer was filled in April with the $1.50/pound chicken breasts. Luckily, though, the vine-ripened tomatoes were $0.88/pound the week I needed them for salsa.
  • Separating the items appeased the widest variety of dieters. The no-carb folks could skip the tortillas. The no-salt folks could skip the chips. Everything except the (obviously) chicken was vegan.
  • The vegetables and tortillas were the first things to run out. The chicken was almost entirely consumed — I had just enough for a plate of nachos on Sunday afternoon. I took home: 1 C of beans, 1/2 quart of salsa, 1/2 bag of the blue tortilla chips, 1/2 bag of the white tortilla chips, 1/2 pound each of cheddar and jack cheeses.
  • Even without making my own tortillas and piñata, this was a lot of work. If I lapse into dementia and agree to be a guest chef again, I’m going to opt for simplicity.


  1. Sounds like fun. Wish my office would do that sort of thing.
    Next time you do this sort of thing Cash and Carry and Costco are both very good for keeping the cost down.
    I just cooked for 100 on 120 (though I only provided about half the food. That being stuffed gorditos, taquitos, sparkling water, sour cream, chips and other miscellany)

  2. Wow. Just cranking out fajitas for 26 was a big enough task. I cannot imagine cooking for that many people with my current setup.

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