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 saute 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 puree 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, sauteing 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 sauteed 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.