SOMEWHERE years ago I read that the best veal in Italy is really turkey, and it somehow always made sense to me. The flavor and texture are not unalike; the only significant difference is that turkey does not need to be beaten into tenderness.
But I never realized how true the myth might be until I spent 15 days eating like a real Italian, in a hospital bed in Turin after an absurd accident. The kitchen feeding 16 floors of patients seemed to have endless veal-style variations on the all-American bird known there as tacchino.
Almost every other menu included some dish that could have been made with either of the white meats. Once it was a twist on vitello tonnato, with cured slices of turkey topped with tuna chunks on mayonnaise flecked with green olives; at another dinner, seared turkey scaloppine was extravagantly seasoned with rosemary. However it arrived, the turkey was always juicy and full of flavor.
Every encounter reinforced what I already knew: Turkey cut down to size is one of the smartest ingredients any cook can pull out of the refrigerator night after night. It has a distinctive taste, it cooks fast, and it lends itself to endless quick-change artistry. You can sauté it, grill it or fry it in breading, and the meat will be at least as good as veal every time.
And anyone who waits around for the looming holiday to indulge is missing out on one of the serious fowl secrets: A turkey cutlet seared in good olive oil in a hot skillet is about as similar to the typical dry roasted bird as strip steak is to prime rib. No cranberry sauce is needed.
Turkey has been one of my secret ingredients for everyday eating since producers started selling parts instead of whole birds in the last 15 years or so. Having been raised with chickens in the backyard, I have no appetite for what the rest of America loves. I was always happy to cook turkey like chicken cutlets and think I was so much smarter. But I never dared substitute it for veal, figuring anyone would know turkey costs less than a leg and an arm.
But since I've been back in my own kitchen, I've actually started serving turkey to guests, who tuck into it with serious interest. This is one meat you won't get in a restaurant, unless it's sliced off a cooked-dry whole bird and topped with resuscitative gravy that never quite restores any life.
One night my consort did the honors and seared cutlets in sage-scented olive oil for friends who invited themselves to dinner when they learned we were housebound. He wanted a sauce as a cover backup for any failures, and we fished around in the cabinets to come up with piquillo peppers and pine nuts to purée together. The flavor was slightly bitter until he blended in some hazelnut oil. Even made with Italian-style roasted peppers, it would have been a hit. Our friends ate all their turkey and went back for seconds on the sauce.
Another evening brought another friend, so we used what we had bought at the farmers market: a fresh boneless, skinless breast sliced into veal-style cutlets, breaded and fried.
It was a twist on a dish we often eat with no witnesses and consider schnitzel, but this time we decided to label it Milanese, in homage to veal. Under the bread crumbs, the meat wore an egg coating, to which we added Italian (flat-leaf) parsley and garlic, which kept it succulent while adding a distinctive layer.
I would eat turkey with wild mushrooms any night, and because the meat is so much less expensive than great veal from my neighborhood butcher ($10 for a whole breast as opposed to $12 to $15 for two servings from the leg), I could indulge in dried chanterelles or any other upscale fresh fungi. The woodsy flavor makes turkey taste even meatier.
Searing, sautéing and frying all work extremely well with super-lean turkey, which cooks at least as fast as veal. But, like veal, turkey is not averse to grilling, either. And those nice black marks make it look worlds away from roast turkey.
Unlike veal, turkey breast has a half-life. Saltimbocca (literally "jump in the mouth") is meant to be eaten immediately when made with calf leg, while turkey lingers in fine form. We've started cooking much more than we can eat at one sitting just to build the foundation for the next couple of days' burritos, quesadillas, salads, sandwiches, potato cakes, omelets and more. (I do, however, draw the line at that Thanksgiving reincarnation of '50s past, turkey Tetrazzini, and I think cooks in Turin would too.)
Sure route to tenderness Supermarkets now sell turkey cutlets as routinely as fresh turkeys out of holiday season, and they generally are cut to be ready to hit hot oil. But I've decided a better bet is to invest in half a whole breast, one that has been boned and skinned, and get it super-cold so that it slices easily.
And half the secret of cooking turkey breast lies in the carving. If your slices are not quite of uniform thickness, you can always lay them between sheets of wax paper and pound the fat parts thin as you would veal. The only sure route to tender meat, though, is careful cooking — even half a minute can turn scaloppine into leather. (If you buy from a trusted source, you will worry less if the meat emerges from the skillet still a little pink.)
What you serve with everyday turkey can also vanquish any visions of the big bird to come in just a couple of weeks. The classic herbs of Thanksgiving, particularly sage and thyme, are just as good any other day, as are rosemary and parsley; the trick is to vary what they go with (mushrooms rather than stale bread, for instance).
Roasted potatoes are a better bet than mashed, and I've learned the hard way that winter squash is too similar to candied yams to pass at a dinner party that does not include cranberry sauce. Pasta, or gnocchi, is a more distracting accompaniment.
As surprisingly good as the food was in the hospital, I did have some veal visions when I was given a stack of Italian food magazines to eat up the long days in bed.
One featured a huge spread about variations on veal — the title translated literally as "smooth scaloppine" — with photos of and recipes for sautéed veal with Gorgonzola, with olives and tomatoes, with radicchio and Taleggio, breaded with nuts and breaded with herbs, even layered with Fontina cheese and ham like mozzarella in carrozza.
By the time I'd turned the first page, though, I was already thinking of how satisfying those would be with the best veal, the fine feathered kind.
Total time: About 20 minutes
Note: You can also serve the turkey topped with a mound of very lightly dressed baby arugula.
8 turkey cutlets (about
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons milk
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, divided
Flour for dredging
2 cups panko or regular
dry bread crumbs
Olive oil for frying
1. Season the turkey cutlets generously on both sides with salt and pepper and set aside. Place a rack over a baking sheet and set aside.
2. In shallow dish, whisk together the eggs and milk. Add the garlic and 2 tablespoons of the parsley and whisk to blend.
3. Place the flour in a second shallow dish and the bread crumbs in a third. Dredge the cutlets first in the flour, shaking off excess, then in the egg mixture, coating well. Place them in bread crumbs and turn to coat evenly on both sides. Place them on the rack.
4. Pour the olive oil to a thickness of about one-half inch in a large heavy skillet, or in 2 skillets. Heat over medium-high heat until shimmery. Carefully lay the coated cutlets into the oil and cook until lightly browned and crisp, about 2 minutes on each side. Remove them from the pan and drain on paper towels. Place on a serving plate, sprinkle with the remaining parsley and serve immediately, with lemon wedges on the side.
Each serving: 406 calories; 36 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 18 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 189 mg. cholesterol; 144 mg. sodium. *
Grilled turkey with piquillo-pine nut sauce
Total time: 20 minutes
Note: The sauce can also be made with regular roasted red peppers, but add a little cayenne to liven them up. Pine nut oil is available at Surfas in Culver City.
1/4 cup pine nuts
8 turkey cutlets (about
2tablespoons olive oil
Salt and papper to taste
6 piquillo peppers (half an
8 1/2 -ounce jar), seeds
2 tablespoons pine nut,
hazelnut or walnut oil
2 tablespoons peanut oil
Sherry vinegar to taste
1. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Toast the pine nuts until very lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Cool.
2. Place the turkey cutlets in a shallow dish. Add the olive oil and salt and pepper to taste and turn to coat all sides. Set aside while heating a grill.
3. Combine the piquillos, pine nuts, pine nut oil and peanut oil in a blender and process until smooth. Season with salt to taste. Add a splash of vinegar if desired.
4. Grill the turkey until just done, about 2 to 3 minutes on each side. Divide among serving plates and spoon piquillo sauce in a ribbon over the cutlets, passing the remainder on the side. (Makes two-thirds cup sauce.)
Each serving: 366 calories; 32 grams protein; 2 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 25 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 82 mg. cholesterol; 122 mg. sodium. *
Seared turkey with wild mushroom sauce
Total time: 30 minutes
2 tablespoons butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
6 ounces fresh chanterelles or other wild mushrooms, sliced lengthwise
1/2 cup Cognac
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
8 turkey cutlets (about
4 tablespoons olive oil
12 leaves fresh sage
1. Melt the butter in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring often, 10 minutes.
2. Add the Cognac and cook until reduced to 2 to 3 tablespoons, about
3. Add the cream. Increase the heat and cook until the sauce thickens (the liquid should be reduced to one-half cup), about 2 minutes. Add the thyme and season with salt and pepper to taste. Keep the sauce warm while cooking the turkey.
4. Season the cutlets with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in each of 2 large skillets over medium-high heat. Divide the sage between the pans and cook 1 minute, then push to sides of pans.
5. Lay cutlets in the pans and cook 2 minutes on a side, until just browned and cooked to taste. Drain the cutlets and sage on paper towels. Divide the cutlets among 4 plates, top each with a sage leaf and spoon the sauce over.
Each serving: 541 calories; 33 grams protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 37 grams fat; 16 grams saturated fat; 159 mg. cholesterol; 83 mg. sodium.