'The other red meat' at 40 m.p.h

A farmer finds a thriving market for ostrich meat, which doesn't taste like chicken or turkey

Standing at the lower end of his hayfield, Powell Anderson points to the middle of a set of long, narrow pens he installed a few years back. There, nestled in the grass between two eight-foot tall ostriches, is a gigantic white egg.

It looks like a chicken's egg - and Dr. Anderson says it will taste exactly like one - but it's seven inches long and can make an omelet the size of one that contains two dozen hen eggs.

Since it isn't breeding season, that's what he'd like to do with the infertile egg.

But there's a not-so-small problem: The ostriches won't let him near it. The bizarre, long-necked birds chased Anderson away this morning and are now busy rolling the egg around with the undersides of their enormous beaks.

"Guess I'm going to have go get it with the truck," he says with a laugh, as another pair of ostriches race one another down an adjacent pen at remarkably high speeds.

Every few minutes a passing vehicle pulls over to the side of the narrow country road, the occupants gawking at Anderson's two dozen adult breeders, which live up to 70 years, weigh 250 pounds, and can run 40 miles per hour. Some of the ostriches run over to the edge of the fence to gawk back.

They're incredibly strange-looking birds, but, believe it or not, their meat is also incredibly delicious.

Many people assume that ostriches, being big birds, would taste like turkey or chicken. But ostrich meat is deep red, the tender, succulent steaks almost indistinguishable from filet mignon. Ostrich growers call it "the other red meat."

Ostrich meat has half the fat of chicken and a third the fat of beef. Since no growth hormones, chemicals, or dyes have been approved for use with ostrich, all the birds grown in the United States are organic and free-range.

In 1995, Anderson, a veterinarian who'd been practicing in Florida, returned to his native Andersonville, a tiny central Virginia farming community 50 miles west of Richmond. He set up a veterinary practice and, to his neighbors' surprise, turned his lower hayfield into the Andersonville Ostrich Ranch.

"People laughed about it at first," Anderson's daughter and ranch manager, Cynthia Harmon, recalls. "But they aren't laughing now."

Their market for ostrich has been growing slowly but steadily as more Americans discover the tasty meat. With an annual crop of around 100 birds, Anderson's operation is relatively small and concentrates on supplying individual restaurants and online retail customers. Larger farms keep supermarket chains such as Harris Teeter and Winn-Dixie in ostrich roasts, fillets, and burgers.

A spokesperson for the American Ostrich Association told one news service that sales of ostrich meat and leather has averaged about $6 million annually during the past five years.

While American sales are still growing, ostrich meat sales are shooting up in countries like France, South Africa, and Spain.

Usually prepared as grilled steaks, broiled fillets, or oven roasts, ostrich can also be substituted for beef in recipes ranging from fajitas and cheeseburgers to stroganoff and meatloaf. It cooks much like beef, but turns tough when well done.

Growers even sell ostrich jerky. The animals also produce high-quality leather used to make handbags, wallets, and custom-made cowboy boots.

And don't forget those cannonball-sized eggs.

At 5 pounds, the ostrich egg is the largest known bird egg today. Not surprising, since the ostrich itself is the largest living bird in the world.

During the breeding season (March to September), each hen lays an egg every couple of days. After six weeks the chicks hatch, already weighing three pounds and standing nearly a foot tall.

The ungainly ostriches grow rapidly, reaching harvest size within a year and able to lay eggs at age 3. A good breeding hen will continue to lay eggs for another 40 years, making them far more productive than cattle.

"I'm sure that in time ostrich is going to become very popular because there are just so many pluses," says Anderson.

"It doesn't take much land to grow them, and they're environmentally sound," consuming far less feed and producing less waste per pound than cattle.

"With the world's population increasing and land becoming more valuable, ostrich makes a lot more sense than beef," he says.

Just be careful when collecting the eggs.

Preparing ostrich

Ostrich fillets, steaks, and roasts are prepared much like beef, except they cook faster and must be served rare or medium-rare. (Well-done ostrich is chewy, tough, and short on flavor.) There is also much less shrinkage, so the meat goes further.

Roasts are usually cooked uncovered in a 350-degree oven. Remove when the internal temperature reaches 140 for rare or 145 for medium-rare. Serve in thin slices.

To grill fillets (approximately 3 ounces each), first rub with olive oil and seasonings to taste. Grill on high heat, turning once (6-8 minutes). Serve with sauteed mushrooms or baked potatoes.

Ground ostrich should be grilled at a high temperature until no longer pink.

Ostrich Stir-Fry

1 pound ostrich fillet, cut in thin strips

8 tablespoons soy sauce

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon diced fresh ginger

2 green or red peppers, seeded and sliced in strips

2 medium white onions, peeled and sliced

4 tablespoons butter

4 cups cooked rice

Marinate ostrich overnight in soy sauce, garlic, and ginger. Partially cook peppers and onions in butter. Add meat, cooking until brown. Serve over rice. Serves 4.

Adapted from the Ostrich News

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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