I’m tired of ground turkey being treated like the Rodney Dangerfield of ground meats. It gets no respect.

Home cooks are assumed to only like it for its lower saturated fat content. Restaurants eschew it — the exception being turkey burgers, which, rumor has it, you have to show proof of high cholesterol to order.

When I asked “What are your thoughts on ground turkey?” on social media recently, one food writer responded privately “the vomit emoji.” (Yes, he wrote it out.)

And, when I reached out to “Top Chef” judge Dale Talde, the chef/partner of Goosefeather in Tarrytown, N.Y., he wrote back, “Ground turkey is straight garbage, I’ll add my disdain.”

Ouch.

But ground turkey isn’t bad, it’s just misunderstood.

“A lot of people, when they prepare turkey … don’t necessarily know how to season or spice or even cook it properly,” says chef Eric Rivera, who uses it occasionally at home, but not at his eclectic, multi-concept restaurant, Addo in Seattle.

“I’ve literally never thought to use it,” says Rivera, who uses ground meat often on his globe-trotting menu, ranging from Italian pasta sauces to Puerto Rican picadillo. Culturally, ground turkey is not what these recipes traditionally call for. Besides, he said, “I’ve never, ever had anybody ask me at a restaurant, ‘Do you have ground turkey?’”

Ground turkey may not be de rigueur at restaurants, but there’s no denying it’s a supermarket staple. With more than $1.2 billion in sales in 2019, the ground version accounts for roughly half of all turkey sales in the United States. The online delivery grocer FreshDirect uses it in meatballs, lasagna, Bolognese and meatloaf.

“Our turkey-based meals perform competitively, and in some areas outperform, when compared to those with ground beef,” says FreshDirect’s chief merchandising officer, Scott Crawford.

Maybe a more apt ground turkey comparison in the entertainment world is Nickelback; everyone claims to hate the band, yet there’s clearly an appetite for it.

To make turkey work at home, “you’ve got to, like, sex it up a little bit,” says private chef Patty Nusser, who cooks ground turkey for her clients, most notably former NBA player Emeka Okafor; he requests it weekly for himself and his family. At first, she found ground turkey to be a challenge. She and her husband, the Michelin-starred chef/partner at New York’s Casa Mono, Andy Nusser, don’t even cook whole turkeys for the holidays, preferring pork or the occasional prime rib. Now, she adds bolder ingredients to her ground turkey dishes, such as ginger, scallions, garlic or ground rosemary. She also likes to grate in carrots to add moisture and sweetness. “You really need some strong flavors with ground turkey to make it work.”

And Nusser added: “It’s kind of like the tofu of the meat world, it takes on any flavor, much more so than chicken even.”

This is what I appreciate so much about ground turkey: It doesn’t have to be the star of the show. Ground turkey’s perceived flaws — that it’s “bland” compared to beef or pork; that its generally lower fat content means it has less flavor and is dry — can play to a creative cook’s strengths.

If you’re looking for a protein that’s a blank canvas for your spice cabinet, ground turkey is your friend. I learned this after suffering a heart attack last year. I turned to ground turkey as an alternative to ground beef, and what started as a way to help me cut red meat from my diet became an enjoyable exercise in cooking.

Yes, the maligned ground turkey became the versatile, indispensable star protein of my pandemic cooking. I found myself making turkey chili, turkey sloppy joes, turkey tacos and turkey kofta kebabs regularly — all dishes that demand assertive seasoning, be it spices, sauces, alliums or herbs. But the ground turkey dish I’ve been making the most lately may be the easiest — and most satisfying: a turkey ragu.

I season the ground turkey in my ragu like sweet Italian sausage — with a vibrant spice blend of salt, fennel seeds, garlic powder, sweet paprika and nutmeg — and add kale to the sauce. Glugs of extra-virgin olive oil give it richness, resulting in a hearty (but not heavy) main course.

And it’s delicious. The proof for me: It’s the rare dish I make that I can get my divergent family of four to agree on.

You can make your own quick marinara, but why would you? This is weeknight cooking and, let’s face it, Rao’s marinara is better than yours. (Heck, grab some prewashed kale you’d use in a salad like I do if you want to save even more time.) The ground turkey does such a great job absorbing the spice blend, maybe you’ll (finally) show ground turkey the respect it deserves.

But please, don’t admit to anyone you secretly like Nickelback; we’re not ready for that, okay?

Petrone hosted and was the executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning television series “Restaurant Hunter”​ for nine years. He now hosts the podcast​ ​Hot Takes on a Plate​.

Turkey and Kale Ragu


Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for the pasta water
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 pound ground turkey (94 percent lean)
  • 3/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 4 ounces curly kale, stemmed and torn into pieces
  • 1 (32-ounce) jar marinara sauce, such as Rao’s
  • 1 pound pasta, such as campanelle, casarecce or fusilli
  • Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, for serving (optional)

Step 1

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta.

While the pasta water is coming to a boil, in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, add 2 tablespoons of the oil and the pepper flakes and heat until the flakes start to sizzle, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the ground turkey, salt, fennel seeds, garlic powder, paprika and nutmeg, and increase the heat to high. Cook, stirring the meat and spices together with a wooden spoon to break it up into small pieces, until the meat is just starting to brown, 5 to 7 minutes.


Step 2

Reduce the heat under the saucepan to medium and add the kale along with the remaining oil. Stir to combine the kale with the turkey and cook until the kale is dark green and tender but not completely wilted, about 3 minutes.


Step 3

Reduce the heat to low and add the marinara. Bring the sauce to a simmer and cook until the flavors meld, about 15 minutes.


Step 4

While the sauce is simmering, add the pasta to the boiling pasta water and cook according to the package directions, or until al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta water, then drain.


Step 5

Add the pasta and the reserved pasta water to the saucepan and increase the heat to medium, stirring until just combined, about 30 seconds.

Divide among shallow bowls, top with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, if using, and serve.


Nutrition Information

Calories: 540; Total Fat: 21 g; Saturated Fat: 4 g; Cholesterol: 56 mg; Sodium: 422 mg; Carbohydrates: 60 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugar: 4 g; Protein: 25 g.


Adapted from podcast host and producer Rob Petrone.

Tested by Ann Maloney; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

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