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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.