Get restaurant diners to sit up and take notice of the versatile poultry with tasteful, taste-worthy recipes.
This article first appeared in the February 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
Ordering turkey in sandwiches, salads or even carved and served with potatoes and gravy is an easy and frequent decision for customers. Out-of-the-ordinary menu items can be a tougher sell, though.
"For whatever reason, people are often afraid of turkey if it’s not roasted and served with cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes," says Executive Chef Dean Dupuis, who makes ample use of turkey in menu specials at South City Kitchen, a contemporary Southern restaurant with two Atlanta-area locations. "I’d love to make people aware of how great turkey can be other than at the holidays."
Given turkey’s healthful halo, good value and broad applicability across dayparts and dining venues, tempting customers to take a second look can be a worthy effort. The meat delivers a distinct flavor more pronounced than chicken but less so than that of duck, squab or pheasant, providing an already approachable option. Deli-sliced breasts, carved cuts and ground turkey hold menu real estate, but emerging applications that use juicy legs, convenient cutlets and quality tenderloins expand the protein’s potential.
With prices expected to decline this year as production and exports rise, turkey becomes even more attractive. Elevated in trappings beyond sliced bread, it can indeed prove a menu moneymaker while driving a bargain for diners.
At South City Kitchen, recent such offerings include Southern-style saltimbocca of pounded turkey breasts wrapped in country ham and topped with Gouda cheese; boned, smoked thighs that are rolled, grilled and served in slices; and Turkey and Smoked-Cheddar Croquettes.
A Leg Up
A diverse list of proteins is a big plus on menus, but it is not the only reason chefs are giving further thought to turkey.
At Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, Miss., the kitschy appeal of smoked turkey legs stirs customer interest, while the large portions and affordable cost make them a welcomed treat, says Director of Food and Nutrition Services Jim Lloyd. Purchased already cooked to ease high-volume production—the hospital serves about 1,500 a day when they’re menued—the frozen, 16-ounce legs are heated in combi-ovens to retain moisture.
Hearty and robust, turkey legs also are well suited to a wintery braise at modern-French restaurant Radius in Boston. The hefty cut cooks slowly in turkey stock with pieces of edible spruce, dried morel mushrooms and aromatics. Shredded, the cooked meat is combined with house-made potato gnocchi, pink peppercorns, shaved Parmesan cheese and black truffles in a small amount of stock.
"I could use chicken, but turkey legs have large enough muscles to really absorb the flavor of the braise, and they take longer to cook, so they maintain their moisture," says Executive Chef Patrick Connolly.
Adnen Marouani, executive chef at La Maschera Ristorante & Enoteca in Pasadena, Calif., prefers turkey for Pesto Di Tacchino—turkey breast rolled with spinach and Parmesan cheese and served with Chianti sauce—because the protein’s lean profile allows him to pound it very thin without tearing.
He briefly poaches rolled breasts so they hold their shape and sears them while making sauce in the same pan, finishing the dish in the oven to retain moisture.
Strutting Its Stuff
Well-crafted recipes can make any audience receptive to turkey, but two key demographics are especially open-minded about creative preparations: college students and health-conscious consumers.
For students—a food-savvy market that will help shape foodservice’s future—turkey appeals as a comfort food and healthful-dining choice. At Sodexho account Xavier University in Cincinnati, Chef Tom Turnbull turns standard roasted turkey into a campus favorite by introducing bold flavors with chipotle barbecue and chimichurri coatings.
He sources a value-added turkey product to assist the large-scale preparation process. The foil-wrapped turkeys roast a day ahead until almost cooked through; they are sliced and reheated at service. Turnbull also uses precooked, oven-roasted deli turkey to slice into cutlets that he then breads lightly and deep-fries for use in recipes such as turkey Parmesan, turkey saltimbocca and turkey bruschetta.
"We serve anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 students per meal, and the cooked turkey is an easy, quick ingredient that’s always here and ready," he says.
The meat’s lean profile goes hand in hand with healthful dining, increasingly top of mind among consumers. That’s part of the reason it is featured prominently on the health-and-wellness-themed menu at Soma Cafe, a two-unit, Phoenix-based fast-casual concept.
Large, never-frozen turkey breasts are trimmed of fat and skin and individually portioned for cooked-to-order entrées such as pan-seared turkey over baby gold potatoes and bok choy in chicken stock. The breasts are seared in canola oil on both sides; the pan is deglazed with chicken stock and finished under the salamander.
Because Soma caters to many diets, turkeys are not brined or marinated before cooking, says Corporate Chef and Operations Manager Tony Zmij. To keep the meat moist, it cooks on the stovetop in stock or on the grill, beginning over high heat and finishing at a lower temperature to keep it from drying out.
Quality Tells (and Sells)
Carlito Jocson, executive chef-partner for Irvine, Calif.-based Yard House, says sourcing birds that are natural and free-range is one way turkey can compete with more typically high-end center-of-the-plate choices such as swordfish and rib-eye steaks.
"With these types of products, we may see turkey getting more play in the near future," he says.
The casual-dining chain hopes to be on the cusp of that trend, employing all-white meat from natural, free-range turkeys for salads, sandwiches and burgers as well as roasted turkey pot pie, a dish Jocson devised to help break away from the poultry’s holiday roots.
The recipe uses tenderloins, a whole-muscle cut from the inside center of the breast that cooks more quickly than whole breasts. Cut into medallions, the turkey joins leeks, carrots, celery, onions and sage-and-thyme-infused gravy in a broad bowl that is encased in puff pastry and baked golden brown.
Hormone-and-antibiotic-free turkey is one of the most-popular proteins at Washington University in St. Louis., a Bon Appétit Management Co. account.
Executive Chef Marc Foley and his team sold 200 pounds of mesquite-smoked turkey legs at a recent theme dinner. Carvery stations regularly offer roasted turkey sliced to order as an entrée or for use in salads and sandwiches. The boneless breasts are brushed lightly with olive oil and coated with Jamaican jerk blend, fresh herbs or other seasonings halfway through the roasting process so they don’t burn.
At Café 909 in Marble Falls, Texas, free-range, heritage breeds of turkey headline multiple menu specials. Chef-owner Mark Schmidt says the birds’ slightly higher fat content yields a moister, more flavorful product.
"Everyone’s had that experience with overcooked Thanksgiving turkey where the meat’s really dry, so I try to use different cuts, too," he says.
For one recipe, thighs are boned, flattened and rolled galantine-style with trimmings, chanterelle mushrooms and chestnuts. The tied rolls are seared, braised in turkey stock and served sliced with hash made of sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts and roasted pearl onions.
"It’s a shame turkey is underutilized," Schmidt says. "There is so much you can do with it—the cuts are so versatile with many different cooking methods."
Proteins that are richly marbled with fat are more forgiving but keeping super-lean turkey moist and flavorful asks for extra care.