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Grilling: Prosciutto-Wrapped Stuffed Cherry Peppers

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[Photographs: Joshua Bousel]

January always finds me reinvigorated to be grill-side, as I turn my attention to one of my favorite categories of food—party bites! As much as I talk a barbecue game, the likes of chicken wings, potato skins, and nachos are even more irresistible to me than large chunks of smoked meats.

I have a few mainstays whenever I'm putting together a party menu, and one of my favorites is bacon-wrapped stuffed jalapeños. With my renewed enthusiasm for new finger food recipes in full swing, I decided to take that beloved dish and see what would happen if I gave it an Italian twist.

Building Blocks

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One thing that makes jalapeño poppers so enticing is that they deliver so much flavor with so few ingredients—peppers, cream cheese, and bacon are all you really need. I wanted to make these stuffed peppers almost as simple, while delivering just as much, if not more, flavor.

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I began with my pepper choice, turning to hot cherry peppers—a variety that follows in the tradition of the jalapeño with a nice fruity flavor and a manageable amount of heat. I was a bit worried they'd be more difficult to prepare, but once I got them home and stemmed them, I was relieved to find that it was perfectly easy to scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon.

The bacon replacement was also a no-brainer—prosciutto would provide an appropriate but distinct pork flavor while retaining the saltiness traditionally imparted by bacon. The cheese, on the other hand, wasn't such an easy call; I decided to do a little side-by-side test to see what would be the best fit.

A Matter of Cheese

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In stuffed jalapeños, the cream cheese is transformative, delivering a smooth texture and tangy flavor that tempers the pepper's heat. But it's just as crucial that it holds its consistency when heated on the grill. Having never put a soft Italian cheese in that same type of environment, I picked up both mascarpone and ricotta to see which would best withstand high temperatures.

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Before I got started, though, I wanted to amp up the the flavor in both cheeses. To counteract their mildness and add a little more depth to the filling, I combined them with sharp provolone and a touch of basil for good measure. I wrapped the stuffed peppers with prosciutto, which actually clung to the peppers so well that I didn't need to secure it with toothpicks, like I usually do with bacon.

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Once they were all assembled, I tossed the peppers onto the grill and cooked them over indirect medium-high heat until the prosciutto had darkened and crisped in areas and the peppers were slightly softened.

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As I went to retrieve the poppers, immediately I saw the mascarpone hadn't fared well. The the fat in the cheese had separated and spilled over, leaving behind a greasy looking mess. The ricotta, other other hand, had done well—not only did it maintain its form and texture, but it tasted better, too.

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To clarify, the ricotta itself mostly added volume and texture; it was the provolone that really shined in the flavor department, lending a light, sharp bite to the poppers. It was the simple but effective filling I was after (the mascarpone played so poorly with the provolone, it tasted like the stuffing had a bit of an identity crisis).

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These peppers have the spicy, salty, meaty, creamy, and cheesy elements of stuffed jalapeños, while providing a pleasant, Italian-style distinction from the classic. Being a big Tex-Mex fan, I'll probably hold onto jalapeños as my go-to stuffed pepper, but this variation comes with a touch of class that promises to impress.

About the author: Joshua Bousel brings you new, tasty condiment every other Wednesday and a recipe for weekend grilling every other Friday. He also writes about grilling and barbecue on his blog The Meatwave whenever he can be pulled away from his grill.

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