Last week, my boyfriend’s garden produced a pack, if not a peck, of peppers. Piquant jalapenos, feisty habaneros, mildly hot poblanos and fierce Thai dragon peppers were plucked from their vines, looking glossy and perfect and good enough to eat.
He canned many of them, producing impressive-looking glass pints of the jewel-like fruit. He said “we” could use them as a handy condiment, although personally I would rather gargle with molten lava. I just nodded absently, knowing full well I would never survive a pepper named after a dragon.
You see, I am not a huge pepper fan. Maybe I have overdeveloped capsaicin receptors or something, because I am a Scoville scale dropout. I don’t believe food should make you sweat and cry and dig out your living will. I will eat reasonably spicy fare, but I’ve inherited my Dad’s curious intolerance to the zestier nightshades, which means even mild peppers upset our bellies.
Even so, there is one pepper-based dish I’ve long wanted to try. It’s chile relleno. It seems so heavenly to stuff a pepper with melty queso asadero (the best cheese ever), then dunk it in a light batter and fry it to a golden, crispy goodness. Besides, cheese and carbs could go a long way toward buffering the poblano’s bite.
With all these lovely poblanos awaiting, I decided to try making an at-home version. And, because I never choose the easy route, I decided to cut out the oil by making them in an air fryer.
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The recipe that rose to the top of my Google search declared itself to be “the best chile relleno you’ve ever tasted.” As this was on the internet, it had to be true, right?
Um, right. The recipe turned out to be incredibly labor-intensive and, quite frankly, a waste of some purple-ribbon poblanos. I foolishly didn’t read the entire recipe before plunging in, which means I found myself inexplicably stuffing the peppers with corn (whaaaat?) and making a weird tomato sauce. To make matters worse, I realized — too late — that this version didn’t even involve dipping the pepper in batter! Basically, it was a Betty Crocker stuffed-pepper recipe, except I needed to jam the filling into tiny, charred poblanos instead of sturdy, thick-walled bell peppers.
The soggy end result took way too long to make and was underwhelming in flavor.
I remained committed to making air-fried chile relleno, come jalapeno or high water. This time, I found the recipe on a site called “Belly Laugh Living.” Although the bloggers’ talk of “calorie-cutting recipes” gave me pause, I had to respect the fact they’d found ways to make light versions of chimichangas and cheesy burritos.
This time around, it was a smashing success. Crunchy and crispy outside, gooey and zesty inside, the dish was mildly spicy, with occasional pockets of surprising heat. In short, it was delicious and memorable. They were like cheese curds with attitude.
Here is that recipe, with a few modifications.
Air-Fryer Chile Relleno
6 roasted poblano or Anaheim peppers* (Hatch chiles can also be used)
6 ounces queso asadero cheese (if you can’t find this, some shredded Mexican cheese mixes contain asadero and will do as a substitute)
2-4 tablespoons whipped cream cheese
1 cup panko bread crumbs
Cumin and chili powder, to taste
Rinse peppers and “char” in 400-degree air fryer for 10 minutes, turning frequently so skin blackens and bubbles. Leave peppers inside fryer to cool, then gently peel off skin and discard. With paring knife, carefully cut out stem and remove seeds. (Some people advise rinsing the peppers to get rid of all seeds, but others say this removes too much of the flavor. I skipped the rinsing step.)
Stuff each pepper with ¼ to ½ tablespoon of the whipped cream cheese, which will help give the filling that yummy creamy texture. Stuff 1 ounce of cheese, cut into strips or shredded coarsely, in each pepper.
Whip the egg in a bowl. Place the panko in separate bowl, then mix in cumin and chili powder (or cayenne pepper) to taste.
Dredge each pepper in egg, then roll in panko, to coat all sides. Spray peppers lightly with olive oil to help crisp up the coating.
Air fry at 370 degrees for 7 minutes. (Check frequently, as air fryers can vary in strength.) Check to ensure the cheese is melted and the outside crispy. If still soggy, lightly spray the top of the peppers with olive oil and cook for 2 more minutes.
Serve with rice, beans and — if you are a Swift — a Tums chaser. Enjoy!
Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at email@example.com.