More than a beer sponge

More than a beer sponge
Ari LeVaux - 09/12/2019

Hot peppers and cheese are a winning combination. Whether it’s red flakes on a slice of pizza, a spicy tray of cheese-drenched nachos or a serving of ema datshi (a Himalayan dish of hot chile and molten cheese), the action is the same: The fat in the cheese embraces the violence of the capsaicin, absorbing the heat with its creaminess. Even in meals where the heat level doesn’t warrant protection, the pungent flavor of chile remains a perfect match for a rich bite of cheese.

Today we dive deep into another example of a happy marriage between chile and cheese: the jalapeno popper.

It sounds cliche?, but many people meet their first jalapeno poppers in a bar, and that is nothing to be ashamed of. Although “bar food” is too often a euphemism for pre-prepared, cheap, frozen and resuscitated with microwaves or boiling oil, the conceptual bones of a jalapeno popper are solid. Given half a chance, a jalapeno popper could aspire to greater things than beer absorption.

The potential for greatness starts with the fleshy, versatile jalapeno itself. Even raw, it has the musk of a roasted green chile and the enhanced flavor that comes with it.

I stuff my roasted jalapenos with cheese and roast again, and when advisable (see below), I wrap the whole thing with bacon. These days, there are all kinds of jalapenos available, including large ones great for stuffing. Some are mild, like the Senorita, which is a great option for spice-averse pepper lovers. At the other end of the spectrum, the  hottest jalapeno can slay even the most heat tolerant. The jalapeno popper is a thinly veiled, Tex-Mex version of a chile relleno, in which a large roasted chile is stuffed with cheese and fried in egg batter. A popper, meanwhile, is stuffed raw, unroasted. The packed popper, breaded and deep-fried, lacks the flavor of roasted chile.

But roasting takes time, as anyone knows who has attempted to roast chile at home. And one of the most tedious parts of the process is the constant turning of the peppers, so all surfaces are evenly blistered.

Luckily, a toaster oven can roast two sides of a chile pod at once, cutting the labor in half. One turn, at most, is all it takes, and the home chef can effortlessly roast five to 10 chiles at once.

A roasted jalapeno, like any roasted green chile, will collapse into a 2D version of its uncooked self. But if you stuff it carefully it will plump out again like a Botox injection.

Mexican-style queso fresco is the best stuffer, because it stays stiff even when melted and won’t seep out and become a burnt puddle around your chile. The flavor does what you want cheese to do, without grabbing the spotlight. Salty, creamy and soft, it’s exactly what you want inside a roasted green jalapeno. Caribbean-style queso blanco works great too, but can be harder to find, so I searched for something with which to hold it all together. Alas, sometimes the peppers break as you stuff them. Wishing for some kind of food-grade duct tape, I happened upon a thin slice of bacon as the obvious solution.

Be advised, it’s a popular beer food for a reason, if used that way – a dangerous feedback loop can develop, especially if the jalapenos are spicy. You drink some cold beer to quench the flames, but it also dulls your nerves. And it tastes so good with the popper you want to drink more. And as soon as the pain subsides you want to eat more, and around and around we go.

After a night like that, the morning walk of shame will be back and forth to the bathroom.

So if the enchantments of these cheesy, greasy green spice bombs get your mouth into trouble, we recommend a glass of milk instead.

Jalapenos Rellenos 

Serves 6
12 large jalapenos
1 10-oz block of queso fresco, or farmer style cheese, cut into 2-inch spears
12 strips of thin-sliced bacon (or vegan version)
1 fresh lime
3 tablespoons soy sauce
Protective gloves
Wearing gloves if so desired, place chiles in the center of a toaster oven, far enough apart that they don’t touch one another. Set it to toast, and toast as many times, or for as long as necessary – about 15 minutes – such that the peels begin to blister. Turn each pepper 90 degrees, and toast again until the up and down sides are again blistered, about another 15 minutes. Place the roasted chile into a covered container for 20 minutes to cool and “sweat,” a process that loosens the skins. After they cool, carefully peel the skins.

Slice halfway through the stem end of the pepper, enough to pull back a still-attached cap and scoop out the seeds and spicy membranes inside. Rinse the cleaned pods if you’re afraid of spice.

Gently stuff about two spears into each jalapeno and fold the caps back into position. If you wish, or deem it necessary, wrap some or all jalapenos in a slice of bacon each. Around and around, tightly.

Place the stuffed, wrapped jalapenos on the toaster oven tray. Roast, without turning for about 15 minutes, or until bacon is crispy. Make sure they cool completely before eating. Season with soy sauce and lime.

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