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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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11.16.07

Talkin’ Turkey

Food History, Recipes


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Native Americans weren’t the only ones to get tagged as being from India. “From India” in French is “d’Inde,” and dinde (or dindon) is what the French still call turkey. In India, on the other hand, they call it peru, because that’s where they thought it was from. (Not a bad guess, given that the Portuguese had introduced potatoes and chilies from Peru, but still wrong—in fact, it appears that South America never had turkeys.) We call the bird “turkey” because the British either confused it with the guinea fowl, supposedly from Turkish territory, or got it first from Turkish merchants—we’re not sure which, but clearly, no one was identifying it with the Americas.

Now, guinea fowl and turkeys don’t look entirely alike, but if you’ve got people drawing pictures, rather than showing up with live specimens, it’s easy to see how they’d be confused. In fact, fairly recently there was a brief flurry of excitement when someone identified one of the birds that decorate the border of the Bayeux Tapestry as being a turkey—“proof” that someone had introduced turkeys long before Columbus. Alexandre Dumas wrote a treatise “proving” that turkeys had long been known in the Old World, stating that the Macedonian king Meleager had introduced them to Greece. It’s hard to be certain he’s wrong, though most scholarship goes against him, but the arguments gained enough credence that the turkey ended up with a Latin name that recognized that king—genus Meleagris. (There are two species indigenous to the New World: the North American wild turkey [M. gallopavo] and the Central American ocellated turkey [M. ocellata]. The former would have greeted the Pilgrims, the latter, the Conquistadors.)

Of course, there is still some debate as to whether or not a European saw a turkey before 1492. The book America B.C. makes a strong case for very early contact; we are certain that at least a few Vikings made it over here early on; and the reports of Basque fishermen about seeing land while following cod across the North Atlantic all make it seem possible that someone caught sight of turkey before Europeans started moving over here, but there still isn’t any evidence that anyone was taking them back to the Old World with them. That is, until the Spanish and Portuguese got here, and then everything started flowing overseas.

An old English ditty that runs “Turkey, carp, hops, pickerel, and beer/Came into England all in one year” suggests to historians that turkeys hit Europe around 1523 or 1524. Rabelais and Shakespeare both mention turkeys, indicating that the birds were known in France and England by the 1540s, and by the mid-1550s turkey prices were fixed in London markets. Turkeys were sufficiently flashy to be impressive at banquets, and tasted better than peacocks, so they soon replaced peacocks at big events—all plumage reconstructed after cooking, for a stunning presentation.

By the 1600s, the turkey was beginning to replace the traditional Christmas goose in England. One of my favorite images of this period (seen only in my mind’s eye) was the practice of driving large flocks of turkeys into London on foot from Suffolk and Norfolk. The “turkey drives” would begin in late August, in order to arrive in London before the holidays.

The exchange went both ways, of course: the Old World got turkey and the New World got lots of new protein sources. (Dog and turkey had been the only two domesticated food animals in Mexico before the Spanish arrived.) In the Yucatan, turkey still rules the larder. It is served year ‘round, in restaurants and as street food, in city and village. You can’t go to the market without seeing turkey prepared half a dozen ways.

On my first trip to Mexico, I discovered a restaurant in Cancun (the town, not the resort area) called Labná, which specializes in Yucatecan cuisine. The restaurant is wonderfully constructed to recreate the feeling of some of the area’s Mayan ruins. It was at Labná that I first had pavo en pipian verde, a dish that is traditionally Yucatecan but has roots that stretch back to the time of the Maya—or, to be more precise, the glory days of the Mayan Empire, because there is still a substantial Mayan population in the Yucatan, and the Mayan language is still the first language of many of the natives. Though a handful of introduced ingredients are included (cilantro, onion, garlic, romaine lettuce), most of the ingredients—and certainly all the key ingredients—in this recipe are indigenous to the New World: turkey, allspice, tomatillos, pumpkin seeds, and chiles. This is really delicious. Enjoy.

Pavo en Pipian Verde
(Turkey in Pumpkin Seed Sauce)

1 turkey breast (about five lb.)
1 medium onion
4 allspice berries
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup shelled, untoasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
7–8 medium-sized tomatillos (about 3/4 lb.)
2 jalapeños
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup, packed, chopped fresh cilantro
6 large romaine lettuce leaves
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
salt and pepper to taste

Put the turkey breast, one onion, allspice, and 1/2 tsp. salt into a pot large enough to fit comfortably, and cover with water. Bring to a boil, skimming the scum as it rises. Reduce heat, cover, and cook until cooked through, about 1 1/2 hours. Reserve broth. Let turkey cool, and then skin, bone, and slice.

Heat a skillet over medium heat for a few minutes, and then add the pumpkin seeds. Spread them evenly, in a single layer if possible. When the first seed pops, begin stirring the seeds. Stir almost continuously until all seeds have roasted and popped, about 4 to 5 minutes. Cool the seeds slightly and pulverize in a food processor.

Husk the tomatillos and wash to remove the sticky coating. Stem and seed the jalapeños. Place the chiles and tomatillos in a saucepan with salted water to cover, and simmer until tomatillos are soft, about 10 minutes. Drain.

Add garlic, onion, cilantro, tomatillos, chiles, and lettuce leaves to the seeds in the food processor, and blend to a paste-like purée. If the purée is too thick for the food processor to process, add a little of the reserved broth. (The dish can be finished to this point and refrigerated and finished later.)

In a large frying pan, heat vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the pumpkin seed mixture and cook, stirring constantly, for about 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in 2 cups of the reserved broth. The thickness should be that of a good gravy or mole. Simmer for 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Put the sliced turkey in the pipian and heat to a simmer. When the turkey is heated through, remove it to a serving platter or individual plates and spoon the sauce over it. May be garnished with a sprig of coriander or a few toasted pumpkin seeds.

Shortcuts and alternatives: Instead of cooking fresh tomatillos, you can use canned. It takes about 1 1/2 cans (13-ounce cans) to make up the same amount as the fresh. If you use canned tomatillos, don’t bother cooking the chiles.

You can use this to dress up leftovers. If, for example, you have leftover roast turkey, use canned chicken broth to thin the pipian, and then just slice the turkey and add it to the simmering sauce.

Instead of turkey, you can make this with chicken. About 5 lb. chicken with bones or 4 lb. without will work with the quantities given above. And an alternative to serving it sliced is to shred the chicken or turkey and use it to fill tacos

One Comment on "Talkin’ Turkey"

Jeff G

Turkey is also called “peru” in Brazilian Portuguese. I never knew why until now!



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