Food Matters: Zesty lessons from an experiment gone awry
A hot, smoky, fiery whoosh of air burns my eyes as I throw open the oven. Then I begin coughing — no, straight up hacking — as if my throat is attempting to escape my body in a fit of rage.
After 20 minutes of cooking, my homemade jalapeño poppers are a sight for sore eyes. Molten cheese has oozed from each pepper shell and pooled into a crusty circle that looks like a tiny, tribal headdress around a small green snake slipped free of its bacon skin. A lagoon of grease shimmers on the foil, sizzling and crackling furiously. Through watery eyes, I can see clearly that my attempt to dull the chile peppers’ spice has failed. In conclusion, this experiment is a spectacular mess.
At least I had the foresight to wear disposable latex gloves when coring and seeding the chiles, to avoid coating my hands in capsaicin oil — I’m not a total dummy in the kitchen.
Jalapeños are not an ingredient I prepare frequently, but my childhood friend Amy had sent me home from dinner at her house in Massachusetts a few weeks ago with a giant bag of garden harvest. A novice green thumb, she had thought this particular planting would produce bell peppers, alas.
So, I packed the peppers in my suitcase, flew home to Aspen, and last Sunday felt compelled to use them up at last. For an afternoon picnic, I set out to recreate the salty, savory snacks sold every morning at Louis Swiss French Pastry in the Aspen Business Center.
Amy’s peppers were seriously spicy, too.
In researching recipes I learned that it’s possible to blunt chile pepper heat by soaking “whole, seeded, boiled” peppers in a 1:3 mixture of vinegar and water. Hold up, I thought, toggling among browser tabs: other instructions skipped boiling entirely. I wondered if that step was necessary. As usual, however, my curiosity would not be ignored.
So, in preparing bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers, I set out to test four methods: using raw peppers, raw peppers soaked in vinegar water, boiled peppers, and boiled and vinegar-bathed peppers. Of my pal’s generous harvest, I had 24 jalapeños of suitable size—six for each process. I also had a full pack of bacon chillin’ in my fridge, yielding 13 slices. I’d just cut those in half to make enough for the dish, and voilà.
I should have viewed that minor cheat as my first red flag, but I didn’t have time to run back out to the store. Perhaps the biggest takeaway here is to never skimp on bacon. I repeat: NEVER SKIMP ON BACON! Though the peppers were a tad small, a full slice per popper was necessary, to avoid dramatic shrinkage as well as help contain the liquid cheese.
My lack of preparation did serve me well in one area: devising a solution to the issue of how to get a gloopy cream cheese-shredded cheddar mixture into whole, hollowed peppers. Still cold, the cheese blend rolled easily into skinny ropes that could be pushed gently into each pepper. Again, gloves come in handy.
Post-catastrophe, I pondered the cheese-splooge dilemma: Next time I might prop each pepper up vertically using a metal cooling rack set over the sheet tray as a makeshift popper stand. Regardless, the erupted cheese browned up nicely on the foil, and I successfully scraped up a few discs to provide as an additional snack.
A quick taste test of each of the four popper varieties offered dispiriting results: texture was identical across the board. Boiling, therefore, seems like an unnecessary step. I couldn’t tell if the hour-long vinegar soak had any effect, either, as spiciness among the four samples varied … likely because every chile pepper has its own unique level of piquancy, or Scoville rating. Also I learned to give myself twice as much time as I think I need to make a new food.
I’m happy to report that I did succeed in one area: I would show up to the party with ice-cold wine. Earlier in the day, I had stopped by the Grog Shop on a mission: What kind of wine will pair well with bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers? I asked. Another customer in the shop perked right up. “I want to hear the answer to this!” she said, following the clerk and me to a display of Spanish white.
Ever the good sport, Bob Perlmutter rose to the challenge. “One school of thought is that opposites attract, so you might pick a sweeter, off-dry wine,” he said. He advised I steer clear of New Zealand sauvignon blanc—the “grapefruit, lemon, citrus notes” wouldn’t work well with the salty, cheesy, spicy flavor. Ditto for a “big, buttery, oaky chardonnay.”
Since I wanted a sippable wine that would stand on its own, Perlmutter’s final selection was a “fresh” 2018 Marqués de Riscal Verdejo, costing just under nine bucks a bottle. Naturally, I bought two. Arriving to a potluck with a double-fist of wine is always a cool move, and insurance if on the heels of a dubious kitchen trial.
“I come bearing total disaster!” I exclaimed, greeting the gals when I arrived. They shushed me, of course, and deposited the sheet tray into an already warm oven.
Later, I was surprised to find the array demolished. Turns out nobody cared that my jalapeño poppers were washed-up pub imitations, mere shells of aspiration. The wine was drained, too — an excellent match for my sad little footballs.
My final, highly scientific conclusion? Nothing else matters much when cheese and bacon are involved. And always ask a pro to pair the wine.
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