Jalapeños are typically thought of as a seasoning, something to chop up or slice to make something else taste spicy. We mince them for salsa, slice them for pho, pickle them for tacos. Rarely is the jalapeño treated as an end in itself, unless you are the kind of person who downs whole, raw hot chilies for kicks.
Yet jalapeños, being among the mildest and largest of the piquant capsicums, have quite a bit of potential as a stuffed hors d’oeuvre. They’re just the right size for a party snack—unlike cavernous bell peppers and poblanos—yet they have more room inside of them than other stuffable finger foods, like mushroom caps. As long as you fill jalapeños with something palate-soothing, you can eat a few of them without breaking a sweat, fearing your tongue is going to burn off, or suffering any of the other unpleasant physiological effects of capsaicin, the compound that makes chilies spicy.
The most obvious palate-soother is cheese. As my colleague Nadia Arumugam has explained in Slate, dairy contains the protein casein, which “pushes capsaicin away from pain receptors and binds to them in its place, bringing almost immediate relief.” The punningly named jalapeño poppers (poppers puns on peppers) are typically filled with a cream-cheese based filling, which makes sense: Cream cheese is both perfectly smooth and impeccably mild, which makes it a great foil for the jalapeño’s sharpness. Add a melting cheese, like cheddar or gouda, and some cilantro, and you have the perfect filling to offset the slightly painful effects of biting into a jalapeño.
Stuffing, breading, and deep-frying jalapeños—as one does for jalapeño poppers—is more hassle than it’s worth. It’s much easier to make a simpler version of stuffed peppers: Halve jalapeños lengthwise, pull out the seeds and veins (you can use a paring knife or, if you’re careful not to rub your eyes afterwards, your fingers), pack your filling into each receptacle, and bake them.
Obviously, everyone’s personal tolerance varies, and jalapeños occupy a fairly wide swath of the Scoville scale, so I can’t promise your nose won’t start running after you swallow one of these stuffed peppers. But stuffed jalapeños are like the best Cat Power tearjerkers—they might make you sniffle, but they’re still so, so good.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Time: About 30 minutes
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 cup grated cheddar or gouda cheese (about ¼ pound)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 pound medium to large fresh jalapeños
1. Heat the oven to 425°F. Put the cream cheese, the cheddar or gouda, and the cilantro in a medium bowl. Season with black pepper, and stir to combine.
2. Halve each jalapeño lengthwise. Trim off the stem, and scrape out and discard the seeds and veins.
3. Using a spatula or spoon, fill each jalapeño half completely with cream cheese filling. Transfer the jalapeños to a baking sheet and bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Serve warm.