A crowd-pleasing summer appetizer for your cookout or Cinco de Mayo party, mini sweet bell peppers are stuffed with creamy, gently spicy nacho cheese. Vegan and gluten-free, everyone will crave this tasty snack!
Hello, Summer appetizers! You are more than welcome to take your place at my table — and grill-side, and poolside, and fire pit-side. Bright and flavorful finger food that’s walk-around carryable and ice-cold margarita friendly.
Cinco de Mayo is almost here, and this year it falls on a Saturday, so, food holiday, you shall be thoroughly celebrated.
I’m not sure that queso stuffed mini peppers qualify as a legit Mexican thing, but I do know that they qualify as a legit crazy-delish appetizer.
These craveworthy appetizers look like a perfectly regular creamy-cheese-stuffed, two-bite morsel. But, they have a little secret: they’re absolutely vegan. You’d might say, they’re nach-o typical queso appetizer. Lol. (I love really bad puns.)
How do you make vegan nacho cheese sauce?
I’m so glad you asked! This creamy, super-flavorful, gently spicy vegan nacho cheese sauce starts with the unlikely combo of cauliflower rice and raw cashews, and, with very little effort, becomes the spoonful-after-spoonful nom-noms of cheezy vegan queso joy you see in the photo above.
If you’ve never had cashew cream cheese, you might be frowning a deep crease right into your face, so convincing is your disbelief. I didn’t really believe it either, especially since I hated cashew nuts as a kid. I first made this vegan nacho cheese sauce six years ago or so, and it’s been a mainstay ever since. It’s just so damn good.
You take softened cashews and cooked cauliflower rice, and blend it all up with spices and salsa, and with just minutes of hands-on time, you have a delish dairy-free, gluten-free nacho cheese that everyone will love, from vegans to carnivores. (Srsly, I served this to a group of omnivores who thought they were just taste-testing my new app. Which was true, but I was looking specifically for reactions to the cheese. Verdict? Best summed up by someone caught digging through my refrigerator after the queso stuffed mini peppers were gone: “I found tortilla chips. Where’s the leftover cheese sauce?” Score!)
Oh! And don’t forget the pickled jalapenos, which I think sends the nacho cheese right over the top. You can use raw jalapenos, of course, but the pickly tang adds both heat and punch to the cheese.
You’ve seen these adorable mini sweet bell peppers at the grocery store, right? They’re packaged in bags, and they’re everywhere right now. I’ve found them at Kroger and Target, as well as my small neighborhood grocery store.
They’re easy to clean (the seed-head is mini, too, lol), sweet, and crunchy. Slice off one side to create little boats, and then broil them quickly to bring out their bell pepper essence.
Load ’em up with the vegan nacho cheese, send them for another short turn in the oven, sprinkle with crushed tortilla chips and cilantro, and you’ve got a party!
Tips for Making Queso Stuffed Mini Peppers
- The nacho cheese recipe makes more vegan queso cheese than you’ll use for one pound of mini peppers. This is because it’s difficult for some blenders to blend up a small amount of nuts and cauliflower. But, know that the cheese sauce will store great in the fridge for several days, so use the leftover cheese sauce for, I dunno, a big platter of veggie nachos for dinner later in the week. (Yeah!) Or, if you’re making the stuffed mini peppers for a party, use two packages of peppers, and you should have plenty of nacho cheese sauce for the double batch.
- I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet that the queso sauce is make-aheadable. So: the cheese sauce is make-aheadable! Woot! That means you’ll have less to do the day of your party.
- You can absolutely serve the peppers raw, stuffed with the cheese. If you have a crowdful of veggie lovers on hand, you’re golden. But, if you have a mixed crowd of vegans and omnivores, I do recommend giving the peppers a quick broil, to soften that serious vegetable crunch, and to heighten the roasted flavor of the peppers, which is easier for non-veggie-lovers to take. You don’t want a deep black char on the peppers — that will make them too soft — just a quick blistering will do.
- Don’t skimp on the crushed tortillas at the end. I love the little crunch, and the hint of corn tortilla flavor goes really well with the cheese (see above re: nacho platter suggestion).
- If you think your guests will be stymied by the stems on the peppers, you can carefully slice them off. But, I think they make the platter awfully festive. Plus, they provide a little handle to grasp while you bite into the pepper. If you’ve blistered the peppers in the oven, the softened peppers will pull away easily from the stems without struggling with a toothy bite. Serve the peppers with small appetizers plates to collect the stems.
Testing this queso stuffed mini peppers appetizer for the blog made me so happy, because it was the first time in the kitchen this year that it felt like summer was actually near. I’ll be celebrating May’s sunny arrival this weekend with an appetizer party and lots of margaritas and mojitos (margajitos? lol). And I hope you, too, Veggie Friends, get to celebrate with loved ones and lots of tasty food!
- 3/4 cup raw cashews (soaked for one hour drained)
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1 cup cauliflower rice (measure after ricing; can also use frozen)
- 1 small clove garlic minced
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
- kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon vegan cream cheese*
- 1/3 cup smooth salsa (use your favorite**)
- 3 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons chopped pickled jalapenos
- 1 package mini bell peppers (about 1 pound, 14-16 peppers), washed, stems on
- spray oil
- 3 tablespoons finely crushed tortilla strips
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro leaves
Heat the oil in a small pot over medium until shimmering. Add the cauliflower rice and garlic and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle the three spices over the cauliflower, plus a pinch of salt, and stir until well coated. Remove the pot from the heat. Stir in the cream cheese until melted and combined into the cauliflower rice.
In a high-speed blender***, add the cashews, salsa, nutritional yeast, 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, and 1/4 cup of water. Blend until smooth. Scrape down the sides, if necessary, and add the cauliflower rice, plus 2 more tablespoons of water. Blend again. Keep an eye on the mixture, and add more water (in 1 tablespoon increments) just until the mixture is smooth, creamy, and spoonable. Taste, and add more salt by the pinch as necessary. Mix the chopped jalapeños into the sauce. Set aside (queso sauce can be made a day ahead and stored in the fridge).
Turn on the broiler to High, arrange the top rack 6" away from the elements, and line a baking sheet with parchment or a broiler-safe silicon mat.
Take the peppers and do a "roll test": determine the flat side of each paper by giving it a short roll on the counter. Where it settles will be the "down" side of the pepper. Cut away a narrow section away from the "up" side of the pepper, in front of the stem, to create a little boat that sits flat (use the pepper strips for another purpose). Cut out or pinch out the small seed head inside, and peel away any large ribs.
Arrange the peppers cut side down on the prepared baking sheet and spray very lightly with oil. Place the baking sheet under the broiler and cook until the peppers begin to raise white blisters. Avoid charring, if possible, as it might soften the peppers a little too much.
Remove from oven, flip the peppers cut side up, and let cool a little.
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Spoon the queso sauce into the pepper boats, pressing cheese into corners and pockets. Fill to the level of the sides of each pepper (you'll have leftover cheese sauce).
Bake for 5 to 8 minutes - the cheese will begin to look dry on the top and perhaps brown just a little.
Remove from oven, and sprinkle lots of the crushed tortillas over the cheese, along with some of the cilantro. Serve immediately.
*You can use either vegan cream cheese or one of the lovely spreadable flavored nut cheeses that are available from producers like Kite Hill. For the photos in this recipe, I used an herb and garlic blend spreadable nut cheese.
**The liquids from the salsa will help create a creamy texture for the nacho cheese. If using a chunky style salsa, it will also work, but you might need more liquids as you process the cheese sauce.
***A high-speed blender is definitely recommended for this recipe, as it's a very thick cheese sauce. I used my Nutribullet, which was sufficient, but only just so. I have not tried this recipe in a food processor.