Poppin’ peppers: The secret to a flavorful chile? Toaster oven

Ari LeVaux More Content Now

Hot peppers and cheese is 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 jalapeño popper.

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

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

These days, there are all kinds of jalapeños 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 jalapeño can slay even the most heat tolerant.

The jalapeño 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 an 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. 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 jalapeño, 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 it got 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 jalapeño. Caribbean-style queso blanco works great too, but can be harder to find.

Alas, sometimes the peppers break as you stuff them, so I searched for something with which to hold it all together. Wishing for some kind of food-grade duct tape, I happened upon a thin slice of bacon as the obvious solution.

As the name suggests, this dish is a cross between a jalapeno popper and chiles rellenos. It includes the best of both, and with a crispy bacon bow. Just, be careful. If the enchantments of these cheesy, greasy spice bombs get your mouth into trouble, we recommend a glass of milk.

Jalapeños Rellenos

Serves 6

• 12 large jalapeños

• 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

Place the 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 of cheese into each jalapeño, and fold the caps back into position. If you wish, or deem it necessary, wrap some or all of the jalapeños in a slice of bacon each, tightly.

Place the stuffed, wrapped jalapeños 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.