I'm not sure when the redneck appetizer known as "poppers" -- a kind of lowbrow, finger-food version of the Mexican chile relleno -- was invented, but over the last decade, the breaded and deep-fried jalapeno peppers, typically stuffed with cream cheese or cheddar, have expanded from the saloon menu to casual restaurant chains and elsewhere. Even the upscale hot-food counter at Cosentino's Brookside Market sells thumb-sized fried poppers every day.
These "poppers" should never be confused with the distinctly more heady "poppers" that were wildly popular during the disco era; these were aromatic, but not for human consumption.
Jalapeno poppers have become so popular that, as we reported last week in Fat City, pepper plants are now being scientifically bred to create bigger peppers that can hold more cheese.
Because the popper name is easily identified among restaurant patrons as something hot, deep-fried and dipped in a sauce or salad dressing, the Texas-based Carrabba's Italian Grill chain -- which actually serves very good, moderately priced Italian-American fare -- has dubbed their bite-sized version of Sicilian arancini balls as "Rustic Risotto Poppers." It's the rough equivalent of calling Michelangelo "Mike."
Traditional arancini are fried rice balls, often filled with cooked ground sausage, maybe peas or chopped mushrooms, and occasionally cheese. The Sicilian name is a variation on arancici ("little oranges") because the fried spheres are golden in color. In Naples, the same fried balls are called palline di riso.
But many American diners have trouble pronouncing Italian words (in this case, it's relatively easy: ar-un-chee-nee), so the executives at Carrabba's decided to rename the dish to something more easily digestible, like poppers. Now there is a pepper component to the Carrabba's creation -- there's chopped red-bell pepper mixed in with the sausage and risotto -- but a popper it isn't.
Carrabba's Italian Grill is located in Overland Park and Independence.