Serving ostrich: It's not that much of a stretch

Bird low in fat, calories grows in popularity

January 16, 2008|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to The Sun

On a recent afternoon, close to sunset, there weren't too many visitors at the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of South Africa. I had the blustery beaches nearly to myself, save for a small colony of penguins and a capering pair of ostriches.

These ostriches were the first I'd ever seen in the wild. The one with black feathers, I later learned, was male; another, gray-plumed, a female. I was delighted by their odd, loping gait; their small heads jutting about at the end of long, twisting necks; and their protuberant eyes. They manifested a quite dignified clumsiness.

Looking at ostriches was a delicious surprise. Soon enough, I discovered that dining on them was surprisingly delicious.

Dan Wecker, executive chef and owner of Elkridge Furnace Inn in Elkridge, agrees. Wecker always features ostrich on his restaurant's fall and winter menu and finds it quite popular with customers.

"I like to serve ostrich medium-rare, with a bright sauce, maybe made from pomegranates or cassis, as this complements the ostrich's wonderful earthiness," he said. "Ostrich has a much deeper flavor than beef. You'd never know it is poultry."

"Everybody assumes ostriches are large chickens. They are not," said Dianna Westmoreland, director of the American Ostrich Association in Ranger, Texas. "Ostriches are prehistoric. They are more closely related to dinosaurs than any other animal still on earth."

Though their lush feathers have been prized for centuries by milliners and couturiers, and their hides make an exceptionally tough leather, what's new -- at least in the United States -- is a growing enthusiasm for eating ostrich. It is red meat, not white like most poultry, and is unusually low in fat, calories and cholesterol.

The American Cancer Society and American Heart Association both have recommended ostrich for its health benefits.

"People are happy to have something that eats like a beef steak but doesn't have all the cholesterol and fat," said Wecker.

Ostrich meat is not inexpensive (filets are priced similarly to prime cuts of beef). But because ostrich flesh has approximately one-third the fat of cow flesh and half that of chicken flesh, it shrinks far less in cooking. Adding to ostrich's current appeal is that it is typically raised organically, in free-range settings, without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones.

Most of the ostriches being bred in the United States are descendants of South African birds, imported either as eggs or chicks in the 1980s. Back at the source, then, I had my first taste of ostrich later the same day I spotted the birds at the Cape of Good Hope.

I was fortunate enough to be visiting the Steenberg, a magnificent old hotel and vineyard behind Cape Town's Table Mountain. Here, in addition to world-class wines such as a sauvignon blanc reserve and a Bordeaux blend, there is a gorgeous restaurant, Catharina's. Chef Garth Almazan that evening had prepared ostrich, grilled rare and served with an onion-and-red-wine marmalade, alongside ravioli stuffed with shiitake mushrooms, thyme and Parma ham.

Ostriches are foraging animals -- they eat seeds, shrubs and whatever other vegetative matter they can find -- so their meat is sometimes infused with flavors such as wild thyme, lavender and rosemary.

When I complimented him on the ostrich breast he'd prepared, Almazan quickly corrected my mistake -- a commonly made one. "Ostriches don't have breasts," he said. "Even to say `filet' is not technically accurate. What you are really eating is the rump."

That, he said, is the tenderest part of the animal. The legs and neck are tougher and usually are sold to be ground up into ostrich burgers.

Unexpectedly, this conversation led Almazan to suggest that I visit Oudtshoorn, a town that's known as the ostrich capital of South Africa and boasts game farms where the intrepid can take a ride on top of ostriches. "It is like bull-riding in America. The birds are kept in an enclosure. You get loaded onto them," he said. "It's good fun."

Thanks, but no thanks.

When I visited Fossil Farms in New Jersey a few weeks later, I also decided I wasn't brave enough to try raw ostrich served in the style of "hunter's sushi."

Fossil Farms is owned by Todd and Lance Appelbaum, two brothers in their 30s who tasted ostrich for the first time on a skiing trip to Breckenridge, Colo., in 1997. They came back to their home state of New Jersey fired up with a plan to try raising these peculiar creatures themselves. Since then, their company has grown to be the largest breeder and distributor of ostrich meat on the East Coast, and among the top two or three breeders in the United States.

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