Those of you who’ve been with me for a while know that my mom barely, rarely, almost never cooked. She loved fashion, she loved fun and she loved food – at the spur of the moment she’d take me off for a sundae at Jahn’s ice cream parlor or clam chowder at one of the big seafood houses that Brooklyn used to be famous for. She had adventurous tastes and was up for any kind of food, as long as she didn’t have to cook it (I wrote about her one good recipe here). And when she did have to cook – I say “have to” because it always seemed like an obligation, never a joy – she cooked simple stuff, stuff that usually involved the broiler and always seemed to involve mayonnaise.
There must have been a moment when mayonnaise was considered a miracle food. (Wait! Is that why there’s a mayo called Miracle Whip?) Of course it was used as a sandwich spread and tuna salad was inconceivable without it, but my mom slathered it on everything, from chicken to fish to potatoes (thank goodness for us she didn’t go in for shimmying Jell-O and mayonnaise molds). I knew even less than my mom did about cooking, but this mayo madness didn’t seem right. Until it did. Until it seemed not just right but genius!
Mayonnaise is no culinary panacea, but boy does it ever do a terrific job of keeping foods moist. Last week alone, I coated pounded chicken breasts with a mix of mayo and mustard to make Eric Kim’s A Lot of Cabbage with Curried Chicken Cutlets from his superb new book, KOREAN AMERICAN, and I blanketed shad – the first of the season – with preserved lemon paste (a favorite condiment from NY Shuk) and mayonnaise.
And I used mayo to keep my packed-with-flavor turkey burgers juicy – no small feat when you consider how lean turkey is. Actually, packing it with flavor was a pretty trick too, since no one’s ever praised turkey for its great personality.
I never thought I’d be an evangelist for either mayonnaise or ground turkey, but put the two together in this recipe and you get something that’s crazy delicious and boundlessly play-aroundable. With a lot of grated ginger, chopped scallions, cilantro and some chili sauce, the mix tilts Asian. And with all these flavors you can make great burgers or a bunch of meatballs to bob merrily in noodle soup, cozy into lettuce leaves or yes, get tossed with spaghetti – go with spaghetti and I’d gloss the pasta with oil and add plenty of cilantro, parsley, dill, lemon juice, zest and maybe some chili flakes (try gochugaru). I usually double the turkey recipe – making burgers with half of the mixture and meatballs with the rest. If you freeze the meatballs, you’ll never be without something good for a last-minute dinner.
Whether you’re making burgers or meatball wraps, have fun with the toppings and go-alongs. My basic spread-over is a combo of mayonnaise and sriracha, but I also like mayo with chile crisp and sometimes I’ll just dab everything with Thai sweet chili sauce. Quick-pickled onions are a natural with the gingery turkey, ditto mango and avocado. When I make wraps, I’ll often include fresh mint leaves and I might make a dipping sauce of soy sauce, sugar and rice vinegar or pull out the Thai sweet chili sauce again. And if you’ve got kimchi in the fridge, you can sneak just a bit into the wraps or the burger (snip it so that you’ve got manageable strands). Oh, about the buns, I usually go for slider-size potato buns, but it turns out that toast is good too.
If you decide to use the meatballs in soup, think about a chicken or vegetable broth – maybe even a light miso – and then go wild with the noodles and vegetables. I like rice noodles with the meatballs and spinach or bok choy or both in the soup. I also like adding baby corn and I love adding bean sprouts, but finding fresh ones isn’t always possible. Want some heat with that steaming soup? Put a little chili crisp in the bottom of the bowl before ladling everything in or float some chili oil on top.
I know you’re going to find a hundred different ways to have fun with this basic recipe and I hope you’ll report back on each and every one of them – we all want to know. And if you take pictures, please share them and tag me, so that I can see your dishes. I love seeing what you’ve all made.
GOOD TO KNOW BEFORE YOU START
The scallions: I slice these paper-thin and use both the white and greens parts. If you’d prefer, you can chop them. And if you don’t have scallions, spring onions are a good sub. And if you don’t have them, mince onion or shallots.
The cilantro: I like to chop some of the stems into the mix – they’ve got so much flavor and I like their crispness. If you’re not a fan of cilantro, you can use parsley or dill. Dill is unconventional here, but fresh and nice.
The sambal oelek: This is a saucy red chili paste from Indonesia, which is now sold in many supermarkets – look in the Asian foods section. I use a small amount in the turkey mix, but if you want more, go for it. And if you don’t have sambal oelek, choose another chili paste that doesn’t have too much vinegar. (Sauces like Tabasco are pretty sour, so taste first.)
The ground turkey: Of course, the recipe will work with ground chicken. Both ground organic turkey and chicken are finadable at the supermarket. If you’ve got a butcher who’ll grind the turkey or chicken for you on the spot, consider yourself lucky and bring a sack of cookies to thank her or him on your next visit.
The meatballs: I like to make the meatballs small – kind of walnut or ping-pong-ball size – because I think they’re nicer in soup or wraps, but there are no rules here. Just remember that if you make them larger, you’ll need to cook them longer.
The chill: If you shape the burgers and/or meatballs and then give them some time in the fridge, they’ll cook better. They’ll also taste better – any time you’re adding herbs and/or spices to a mixture, you’ll get more flavor if you give the ingredients some time to mingle. A half hour is kind of the minimum – do what fits into your sched and, if your schedule is rushed, skip the chill.
The cook: When you’re working with foods that have almost no fat (as is the case with turkey), you want to do everything you can to keep them moist. For this reason, I like the sear-and-bake method of cooking – get a crust on the burgers or meatballs in a hot skillet and then let them cook through in the oven. Check the internal temperature of the burgers and meatballs to be sure that they’re done (and not overdone) – I keep my instant-read thermometer nearby.
The spread: I like to spread the buns or meatballs with mayo mixed with sriracha or chili crisp or to use Thai sweet chili sauce.
Makes 4 burgers or about 16 small meatballs
1/2 cup (about 20 grams) thinly sliced or chopped scallions, white and green parts (see above)
1/4 cup (about 15 grams) chopped cilantro or other herbs (see above)
1/4 cup (55 grams) mayonnaise
3 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
4 teaspoons unseasoned dry breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon sambal oelek or other chili sauce (see above)
1 pound (454 grams) ground turkey (see above)
Oil, such as vegetable or peanut, for sauteing
Burger buns or sliced bread, lightly toasted
Lettuce leaves, for wraps
Flavored mayonnaise (see above)
Pickled or raw red onion slices
Fresh herbs, such as cilantro and/or mint
Sliced or cubed mango
Sliced or cubed avocado
Stir all of the ingredients – except the turkey – together in a bowl. Add the turkey and gently mix to blend. Form the mixture into 4 burgers or into about 16 meatballs (a cookie scoop is useful here). Place them on a plate or baking sheet, cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or for up to 1 day before cooking.
Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 375 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment, foil or a baking mat.
Warm a tablespoon or 2 of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. I like a nonstick skillet for this job. When the oil is hot, slip in the burgers or as many meatballs as can fit comfortably without crowding. Cook until brown on all sides, about 5 minutes, transfer to the baking sheet and continue with the remaining burgers or meatballs, if necessary.
Slide the sheet into the oven and cook until the burgers or meatballs reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. The burgers will take 15 to 20 minutes and the meatballs about 5 minutes (depending on how cold the meat was when you started.)
The burgers or meatballs are ready to serve now. If you’ll be using them for soup or sandwiches, you can wrap and chill them until needed.
STORING: Wrapped well, the cooked burgers or meatballs will keep in the refrigerator for about 3 days. The mixed, shaped and uncooked burgers or meatballs can be wrapped airtight and frozen for up to 1 month. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator and then cook.