Appetizers

Better Stuffed Peppers (Gluten- & Dairy-Free, Vegan)

Stuffed Peppers with Quinoa, Mushrooms, and Black Beans

I’ve never liked stuffed peppers.

I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the notion of eating spaghetti sauce as a meal. Maybe it’s because it’s usually spaghetti sauce mixed with rice and topped with melted cheddar, which is not a flavor combination that really sings to me, you know? Or it could be the sagging, wrinkly pepper that serves as a receptacle for these weirdly blended filling ingredients.

Either way, when a client asked for stuffed peppers, I groaned on the inside.

Of course I’ll feed a client whatever they want, but it means that I have to taste that uninspired dish along the way and ultimately serve something I couldn’t be convinced to eat myself. It’s the artistic equivalent of paint-by-numbers. And nobody respects a hack.

So needless to say I was intrigued when she sent me a recipe she’d found—a version using ingredients I’d never heard of in a stuffed pepper recipe—and utilizing spices that made it more southwestern than pseudo-Italian. And it didn’t have meat or cheese, making the already gluten-free dinner option vegan to boot, so possibly…useful for me to have in my arsenal?

I was still skeptical, however. For starters, when has taking the cheese out of a recipe ever made it better? And secondly, at that time in my life, I generally ate things in spite of them being vegan, and not because of it.

But I bit the bullet and tried the new fandangled spin on the old classic. And discovered I was wrong. Deliciously so.

Turns out I DO like stuffed peppers. Damn, I love a happy accident!

Over time, I’ve made the recipe mine; adding spices, subtracting toppings. I’ve tried multiple variations—the addition of potato, for instance—great for when you’re trying to bulk the recipe up from six servings to eight. I’ve boiled the peppers for two minutes all the way up to ten. Turns out I prefer them not boiled at all. I like the tiny bit of crunch they retain after just the single bake.

mini peppers

Then I discovered what a great appetizer these make when you stuff them in tiny sweet peppers, like these.

These babies are a perfect one- or two-bite snack and are delicate enough that they don’t need to be baked at all. Serve them at room temperature or while the filling is still warm.

And since I wholeheartedly believe that food exists to be a vessel for sauce, I just couldn’t leave well enough alone. As delicious as these are topped with the traditional tomato sauce, by far my favorite flavor combo is made by drizzling these little poppers with my vegan avocado “crema.” The cilantro, lime and tomatillo marry perfectly with the cumin, chili powder and black beans in the stuffing.

Simply divine. I’ll never look at a stuffed pepper the same way again. And hopefully, neither will you.

Better Stuffed Peppers (Gluten- & Dairy-free, Vegan)
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 cups mushrooms, finely chopped (I like to pulse them ever so briefly in the food processor)
  • 1 T chili powder
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 tsp fresh cracked pepper
  • 1/2-15 oz can tomato sauce, other half reserved for optional garnish
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup quinoa, rinsed
  • 6 large red bell peppers, ribs and seeds removed
  • 1-15 oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 tsp pure maple syrup
  • small handful cilantro, chopped, for garnish (optional)
  • 1/4-1/2 cup avocado “crema,” for garnish (optional)
  1. Preheat the oven to 350º F.
  2. In a saucepan over medium heat, sauté the onions in olive oil for 3 to 5 minutes, until onions are translucent.
  3. Add garlic and mushrooms; sauté until the mushrooms have released their moisture and the mixture begins to look dry, about 5-8 minutes.
  4. Stir in the chili powder, cumin, salt and pepper. Sauté until fragrant.
  5. Add the quinoa, water, and 1/2 can of tomato sauce, reserving the rest. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat. Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until quinoa is cooked.
  6. For softer peppers, submerge in boiling water for 5 minutes. For tender-crisp peppers, skip this step.
  7. When quinoa is finished simmering, add the beans and maple syrup. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary.
  8. Stuff each pepper with the filling, and place in a baking dish. If using tomato sauce, pour the remaining over the peppers.
  9. Bake for 15 minutes.
  10. Garnish as desired.

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Live a Little: Bacon Wrapped Jalapeño Poppers Done Right!


Bacon wrapped jalapeño poppersI recently bartended a party for Adam and Eve. Yep, you read that right. The “first couple” drinks! Old Fashioned’s, apparently.

In the stressful flurry of pre-party preparations I was handed a grocery bag filled to the brim with three things: jalepenos, shredded cheese and bacon. The person who handed it to me ran away before I could ask any questions. This happens to me a lot. I must look like a problem solver.

Technically the job belonged to the gentleman who’d been hired as the Grill Master for the day, but together we tackled the seeding, stuffing, and wrapping and in no time, dozens upon dozens of poppers were grill-ready.

My colleague gave it the old college try, but sadly, the never-before-used grill that came with a jet-powered heat source and without instructions of any kind promptly rendered all our hard work charred beyond recognition. Not that I have a problem with burnt spicy-bacon-flavored-cheesy goodness. In fact, I’m sure I could have eaten the entire blackened tray myself. The party guests–properly lubed up on Old Fashioned’s–didn’t seem to have a problem with it either.

But it got me thinking, how does one make perfect jalapeño poppers on the grill without causing the wild flareups that invariably occur when bacon grease meets fire? How do you keep the filling from falling out? (Hint: don’t use store-bought cheese shreds). Must you use an entire bacon strip for each popper? Again, I’m not mad at the idea, but it means I have to stop short of eating 12 poppers all by myself because I’m quite certain that it’s ill advised to consume an entire package of bacon in one sitting.

So, I thought I’d give my healthy habits a day off an write a post that’s simply indulgent. Because sometimes hedonism makes life more delicious!

And because it’s fun to be ironic, the filling for this recipe is adapted from Cooking Light, where the use of Neufchatel, which has 1/3 less fat than regular cream cheese, makes these “guiltless.”

I kid, I kid. But every little bit helps right?

I also used a crazy delicious, extra-sharp New York cheddar made from raw milk because my body definitely likes raw cheeses better than the pasteurized variety. But the cream cheese wasn’t raw, so again, it’s all a bit tongue-in-cheek.

And did you know they make organic, nitrate-free bacon? Well, they do, and this brand is superb! Not all organic bacon is created equal though, so do a trial run before debuting these delectable apps at your next party. Nothing, and I mean nothing is sadder than bad bacon. I want to spare you the experience.

The key to jalapeño popper perfection, I discovered, is grilling them over indirect heat. Meaning if there are flames directly underneath where you place your poppers, you’re going to end up with nothing but charred remains. Instead, light only one or two burners and leave room to place the jalepenos over an area with no flame underneath. Then close the lid. Seriously, this is the biggest grilling faux pas, and I see it all the time. A grill is an outdoor oven. You would never cook your dinner with the oven door open, right? Close that bad daddy! And then be patient, it takes a while for these suckers to cook.

I found that this indirect heating method allows the poppers to cook to crispy, melty perfection without requiring flipping, which is good because the cream cheese all leaked out when I tried. Of course, these delectable hors d’oeuvres can be just as easily baked–without all the shenanigans–but you and I both know that grilled flavor is worth the extra effort.

Bacon Wrapped Jalapeño Poppers
Be smarter than the Wellness Chef Jennie and use food handler’s gloves when de-seeding the jalapeños. Your eyes will thank you for it. Threading several poppers onto a skewer makes handling them on the grill a breeze.
  • 1 pack Neufchatel, at room temperature
  • 2 tsp fresh garlic, minced
  • 1/3 cup green onion, minced
  • 1/3 cup cilantro, chopped
  • 1/2 cup raw milk extra sharp cheddar, finely shredded
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 8-10 jalepenos, halved and seeded
  • 1 pack organic, nitrate-free bacon
  • 1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper
  1. Halve the jalepenos. Remove seeds and ribs. 
  2. To make the filling, combine the Neufchatel, garlic, green onion, cheddar, lime juice, and salt. Scoop enough filling into each jalepeno half so that it creates a gentle mound.
  3. Cut each bacon slice in half horizontally. Wrap bacon around stuffed jalapeño pieces, covering the filling as much as possible. Thread three or four onto a skewer.
  4. Sprinkle skewers with fresh cracked pepper and press lightly so the pepper sticks.
  5. Place skewered poppers over indirect heat on your pre-heated grill and close the lid. Grill without turning until bacon reaches desired crispness, approximately 20-25 minutes.

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