If any vestiges still remain of the history lessons of your early school years, you may recall that Benjamin Franklin favored the turkey to be designated as the national bird, and was deeply disappointed when the bald eagle won that title. But did you know that centuries earlier, the Aztecs domesticated this uniquely North American fowl, not only consuming its meat and eggs for their high protein content but also using its festive feathers for their ceremonial vestments?
And while we may no longer have any overwhelming need to adorn ourselves with trailing headdresses, we would be well-advised to emulate the Mesoamericans in utilizing the turkey as a major source of protein in our daily diets. Recent research has demonstrated that turkey meat can provide benefits that red meats such as beef cannot, and avoids some of the pitfalls that red meats often inflict.
Those pitfalls can include such hazards as threats to the cardiovascular system and a higher risk of colon cancer, neither of which have been evidenced in the consumption of turkey -- which is considered a "white meat," even the so-called "dark" thighs and drumsticks. In fact, the breast meat is "white" in domesticated turkeys only because they never fly; in the wild, turkey breast meat is just as dark as the rest of the bird.
Beyond providing a substantial dose of healthy proteins, turkey also offers a generous supply of Vitamin B6, as well as niacin, selenium, and zinc. And if the bird's diet included foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, then those useful nutrients will be available as well.
Studies have shown that the feed the bird consumes, and its health before slaughter, have a significant impact on the nutritional benefits to be derived. Of course, it's tough to quiz your grocer on the mealtime habits and general health of that package of drumsticks, right? So for this and other reasons, it's best to seek out organic turkey meat, and if possible, "pastured" birds. This designation, which indicates actual outdoor activity, is preferable to "free range," which requires only "access" to the outdoors and offers no guarantee that the sun has shone upon that bird. An organic label also ensures that no antibiotics or additives have been used, which is always preferable.
Oh, and you know that old wives' tale about the tryptophan in turkey making you sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner? Not really -- it's all those side dishes filled with carbohydrates that you over-indulged in, not to mention that second bottle of wine...
In any event, it's time to think outside the "holiday box," and start enjoying turkey year-round!
Talking Turkey About Food Safety
There are a number of factors to keep in mind when buying and handling turkey, as with any poultry. To derive optimum benefits and avoid any health hazards, keep these few basic guidelines in mind:
When possible, always buy fresh, not frozen; additives such as salt and MSG are not permitted in fresh turkey, whereas they are often found in frozen. And defrosted flesh deteriorates faster.
Be vigilant about checking the date on the package, and be sure it's newly-cut and packaged. This is especially important with ground turkey - query the meat-guy if you must, to make sure it was ground that day.
Make sure that this (or any poultry, meat, or fish) is the last thing into your cart before you head for the checkout line. If you have a ways to drive, or if the weather is especially warm, put a cooler with blue ice in the car and transfer the turkey to that for the ride home.
Store the turkey on the lowest shelf of the fridge, in the back; use a whole turkey or turkey parts within a day or two at most, and use ground turkey the same day you bought it.
When handling the bird or its various parts, wash your hands thoroughly before and after, and be sure to use warm soapy water on anything involved in prep -- cutting board, bowl, knife, and so on.
Always cook turkey to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees.
Follow these few safety tips, and you can fearlessly enjoy your new favorite protein.
Mediterranean Turkey Meatloaf
Even picky eaters go wild for this comfort food that's perfect for those cold March nights! And the leftovers make mighty fine sandwiches.
3 lbs. ground free-range organic dark turkey meat
7 ounces crumbled French feta cheese (I use Valbreso brand)
3 ounces pine nuts
3/4 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, drained
1 cup shredded fresh basil
3/4 cup panko bread crumbs
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning mix
1/2 cup organic ketchup
Preheat oven to 375.
Place all ingredients except ketchup in a large mixing bowl and combine, mixing with your hands lightly. Transfer to a 9x13 baking dish (or disposable foil pan) and shape into a loaf - don't pack it too tightly. Spread the ketchup evenly over the top. Bake for one hour 10 minutes; remove from oven, and let it rest for 10 minutes before slicing. Serve with smashed boiled potatoes with olive oil and baby peas.
Smoked Turkey & Fennel Salad
A little something different for lunch... serve over greens for a refreshing salad, or do a hearty sandwich with whole grain bread & romaine lettuce.
1 1/2 lbs. low-sodium smoked turkey, cut into half-inch cubes
2 stalks of celery, chopped
1 small fennel bulb, chopped
1/4 cup Italian parsley leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Grind or two of black pepper
In a large bowl, toss together turkey, celery, fennel, parsley and lemon juice. In a small bowl, stir together mayonnaise, mustard and pepper; spoon over turkey mix and stir to combine.
A version of this post appears in my "Eat Smart" column in the March issue of Better Nutrition magazine.