RECIPES: Versatile ground turkey takes on flavors of whatever you cook with it

Three-Cheese Turkey Manicotti
(TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)
Three-Cheese Turkey Manicotti (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)

After a day of taking pictures of dishes made with ground turkey — the same pictures you see on these pages — photographer Hillary Levin had an insight. In a moment of clarity and understanding usually attainable only by solitary meditation on a remote mountaintop, she said, "Ground turkey is the tofu of meat."

Lightning split the heavens. A dense bank of clouds parted, allowing a blinding ray of sunlight to shine brightly through. Somewhere, a distant church bell chimed.

Ground turkey is the tofu of meat.

It has no particular flavor of its own, and no one would want to eat it by itself. But it absorbs the flavors of the food around it, and amplifies them and adds texture. It acts as a catalyst; you add it to other ingredients and it makes them taste better.

It is also inexpensive. To my eye, that makes it an ideal base for lunch or dinner.

For this story, I made four entrees with ground turkey. Why? Because I could.

One thing I did not make was turkey burgers. Turkey burgers are fine in their limited way, but in the end they are just ... turkey burgers. They are only worth eating if you put something interesting on them or in them (because ground turkey is the tofu of meat).

When I was doing research for this story, however, most of the recipes I found were for turkey burgers. They were always dolled up in some way — jerk turkey burgers, Asian turkey burgers, Southwest turkey burgers — but you couldn't hide the fact that they were still just turkey burgers.

So I made four decidedly unburgerish dishes using ground turkey. And they were so much better than their pattied and grilled cousins.

I started with a dish I make frequently as part of my regular lunchtime rotation. I never gave it a name before, but it looks kind of sloppy so I am calling it Dan's Turkey Mess.

Essentially, it is chili, but without the liquid. It's the meat — ground turkey instead of ground beef — seasoned with a few essential seasonings and mixed with canned diced tomatoes and beans.

Yes, it is a bit of a mess. But it is hearty and quite satisfying. I like to make it spicy and serve it on rice.

For my next dish, I made a recipe that I was frankly embarrassed to try: Three-

Cheese Turkey Manicotti. It takes shortcuts I am loath to take. It uses ingredients I prefer not to use (Italian seasoning, onion powder, garlic powder). It uses a bizarre amount of sweet onion. It puts sugar in tomato sauce.

But I had already bought the ingredients apparently without sufficiently examining the recipe. So I begrudgingly made it, after cutting the sweet onion in half, eliminating the sugar, making my own tomato sauce instead of getting it from a jar, using chopped onion instead of onion powder and going to the store to buy Italian seasoning.

And here is the weird part: It tasted delicious. Seriously, it was amazing. Maybe it was all the cheese (the manicotti are stuffed with cheese; the ground turkey and sauce go on top). Maybe it was the balance of flavors. Maybe it was my homemade tomato sauce. But this is definitely a dish to feed your family or dazzle your friends.

The same can be said of my next dish, Tamale Pie. This is a dish that takes all the best parts of a tamale, ditches the corn husks, and makes it into a casserole. Martha Stewart, whose recipe I used, calls it "the official casserole of Texas."

That may or may not be — I lived in Texas and don't remember eating it, but then again I don't remember not eating it, either. If Texas doesn't want to claim it, maybe some other state will, because it is outstanding.

Think of it as a casserole sandwich. The top and bottom layers are made from cornmeal, with the top embellished with browned Monterey Jack cheese. In between is a heavenly melange of Southwestern flavors — ground turkey, of course, plus tomatoes, onion, garlic, cumin, oregano, cayenne and more.

If you have ribs, it will stick to them.

And last, but far, far from least, I looked toward India and made Turkey-Spinach Korma. It is a curry with turkey and spinach, flavored with garlic, ginger, cilantro and onion, and enhanced and enriched with yogurt.

It is a fresh, bright and unexpected take on ground turkey, and about as far from a turkey burger as you can get.

Dan's Turkey Mess
(TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)
Dan's Turkey Mess (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)

Dan's Turkey Mess

1 teaspoon oil or butter (more if not using nonstick pan)

½ cup chopped onion

2 cloves garlic, smashed

1 pound ground turkey

Salt and ground black pepper

½ teaspoon dried oregano

Pinch ground red (cayenne) pepper, or to taste, optional

1 (15-ounce) can beans such as black, pinto, kidney or cannellini

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted

White rice, for serving

Heat oil or butter in a large skillet on medium-high heat. Add onions and saute until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Add ground turkey and season with plenty of salt and pepper. Add oregano and cayenne pepper, if using. Cook, breaking up turkey with a wooden spoon, until turkey is all cooked and there is no pink left. Add the beans and their liquid and the tomatoes and their liquid, stir to mix and cook until heated through.

Remove garlic if you can find it. Serve with plenty of rice. Leftovers, topped with a poached egg, are good for breakfast.

Makes about 4 servings.

Nutrition information: Each serving contains approximately 514 calories, 34 g protein, 10 g fat, 70 g carbohydrate (6 g sugar), 79 mg cholesterol, 1,320 mg sodium and 11 g fiber.

Three-Cheese Turkey Manicotti

8 uncooked manicotti shells

1 pound ground turkey

½ large sweet onion, chopped

24 ounces tomato sauce, homemade or your favorite from a jar

2 teaspoons Italian seasoning

¼ yellow onion, chopped OR 1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon garlic powder

2 cups shredded cheddar-Monterey Jack cheese blend

1 (15-ounce) carton ricotta cheese

½ cup grated parmesan cheese, divided use

1 egg, beaten

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 13-by-9-inch baking dish and set aside. Cook manicotti according to package directions.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, cook turkey and chopped sweet onion over medium heat until meat is no longer pink; drain. Stir in the spaghetti sauce, Italian seasoning, onion and garlic powder. Place 1 cup of this sauce in the prepared baking dish.

Drain manicotti.

In a large bowl, combine the cheddar-Monterey Jack cheese, ricotta cheese, ¼ cup of the parmesan cheese and egg. Stuff into manicotti shells; this will be easiest if you use a pastry bag or a reusable plastic bag with a small hole cut out of one corner. Place shells over meat sauce. Top with remaining sauce. Sprinkle with remaining ¼ cup parmesan cheese

Cover with aluminum foil and bake until bubbly, about 40 to 45 minutes.

Makes 4 servings.

Nutrition information: Each serving contains approximately 900 calories, 63 g protein, 45 g fat, 61 g carbohydrate (11 g sugar), 236 mg cholesterol, 708 mg sodium and 5 g fiber.

Recipe adapted from Taste of Home

Ground Turkey Tamale Pie
(TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)
Ground Turkey Tamale Pie (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)

Tamale Pie

Salt and ground black pepper

1 ¼ cups yellow cornmeal

1 tablespoon butter, plus more for dish

¼ cup olive oil

1 onion, coarsely chopped

3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

1 green bell pepper, ribs and seeds removed, cut into ¼-inch dice

1 serrano chile, finely chopped

1 ½ pounds ground turkey

1 (14-ounce) can plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped, juices reserved

½ cup chicken stock

1 teaspoon ground cumin

¾ teaspoon dried oregano

¼ teaspoon ground red (cayenne) pepper

8 pimento-stuffed green olives, rinsed and coarsely chopped

4 ounces grated Monterey Jack cheese

Desired garnishes for serving, such as crisp lettuce leaves, chopped avocado, tomatoes, red onion and cilantro

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Bring 5 ½ cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add 2 teaspoons salt. Whisking constantly, add cornmeal in a slow, steady stream, switching to a wooden spoon if cornmeal becomes too thick to whisk. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring often, until thick and creamy, about 15 minutes. Stir in butter; cover and keep warm.

Lightly butter a 2-quart baking dish.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high, then add onion, garlic, bell pepper, chile and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, until onion is golden and vegetables are tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Add turkey and cook, breaking up large pieces with a wooden spoon, until cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and juices, stock, cumin, oregano and cayenne. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring, until most of the liquid has evaporated and the mixture resembles chili, about 10 minutes. Stir in olives and season with salt and pepper.

With a wet spatula, spread 1½ cups cornmeal into bottom of prepared dish. Spread turkey mixture on top, then spread remaining cornmeal on top. Sprinkle evenly with cheese. Bake until golden brown and cheese is melted, 35 to 40 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes. Serve with lettuce and garnishes.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Nutrition information: Each (of 8) serving contains approximately 495 calories, 31 g protein, 29 g fat, 29 g carbohydrate (4 g sugar), 101 mg cholesterol, 991 mg sodium and 4 g fiber.

Recipe from "Martha's American Food" by Martha Stewart

Ground Turkey-Spinach Korma
(TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)
Ground Turkey-Spinach Korma (TNS/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Hillary Levin)

Turkey-Spinach Korma

1 large onion, chopped, divided use

1 (2-inch) piece ginger, peeled and chopped (about ¼ cup)

3 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon curry powder

¾ teaspoon salt, divided use

¾ cup plain low-fat yogurt, plus more for serving

1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 pound ground turkey

1 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus more for topping

3 cups cooked brown rice, for serving

Puree half of the onion, 2 tablespoons water, the ginger, garlic, curry powder and ½ teaspoon of the salt in a food processor or blender and set aside. Mix the yogurt with ¼ cup water in a small bowl and set aside.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over high heat (use both tablespoons if using 99% lean turkey). Add the remaining ½ chopped onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned and tender, about 3 minutes. Add the turkey and cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes.

Add the onion-spice mixture to the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until dry, about 4 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the spinach and the yogurt mixture. Cook, stirring, until warmed through, about 3 minutes. Stir in the cilantro and the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt. Serve over rice with more yogurt and topped with cilantro.

Nutrition information: Each serving contains approximately 437 calories, 33 g protein, 15 g fat, 45 g carbohydrate (4 g sugar), 82 mg cholesterol, 573 mg sodium and 6 g fiber.

Adapted from the Food Network

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