Ostrich is making a comeback. “When was it in?” you may ask. If you are racking your brain to recall he last time the large flightless bird had any culinary cachet, you’d have to look back to ancient Rome. That was when the noted gastronome Apicius created a special sauce for boiled ostrich, an expensive delicacy. It included pepper, mint, cumin, celery seeds, dates, honey, vinegar, garum (fish sauce), and passum (a sweet wine pressed from grapes dried on the vine).
Apicius’s feasts were extravagant by any measure, even when compared with those that followed in the Middle Ages. Any bird that can grow to 9 feet tall and weigh up to 400 pounds has to be quite an undertaking to prepare. However, don’t start custom-building an oven to roast the whole bird, since from the cook’s point of view, ostrich is nothing but two huge legs.
In present-day ostrich farming, the ideal age for processing birds for their meat is between 12 and 16 months, when they weigh between 250 and 300 pounds. The yield is between 85 and 100 pounds of meat, as well as about 14 square feet of ostrich leather. Hens lay between 30 and 60 eggs a season, and can lay as many as 100. The birds can live up to 80 years, and produce for 50 of those. For gargantuan appetites, try an ostrich drumstick; each one weighs a hefty 30 to 40 pounds.
The growth of the ostrich industry can be attributed to the birds’ beefy red meat, which has less fat than turkey, making it healthful yet satisfying. Ostrich meat comes from the thigh and leg. Its flavor is similar to that of beef fillet and top sirloin steak; and the delicate texture is somewhat like that of venison or flank steak. It is lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than beef, but also white meat like chicken and turkey. Like all game meats, ostrich is lean and must be cooked accordingly.
Ostrich is easily adaptable to all dry-cooking techniques, from stir-fry and barbeque to roasting and sautéing. It also takes well to marinades. For optimum results, slice the meat into medallions and cook quickly over high heat to rare or medium rare, about 140 to 150 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer. Because it’s so lean, there is almost no shrinkage. To prevent sticking, add a little oil (especially a flavored one) to the pan, or brush the meat with it. Even a short amount of overcooking can make ostrich dry and unappealing. If you stew or braise ostrich, do so over low heat.
Grilled Ostrich Fillet with Cascabel Chili and Honey Glaze