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Cooking Off the Cuff: Of Flightless Birds and Red Wine Sauce

This native African bird is a more mainstream food than I thought, just not in my little corner of Manhattan.
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For years I've walked past the farmers' market stand selling ostrich meat and eggs, and have peered at its wares without stopping. It is closed-minded of me, but I've always labeled the flesh of creatures not part of the traditional urban diet - alligators, for instance - as some sort of gimmick. That was more than closed-minded: it was just plain silly.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Sam Williams - head chef of the excellent London restaurant Cafe Murano - was quoted in a newspaper as saying that ostrich made a terrific alternative to the never-changing British Christmas dinner and that a cook could treat it like venison. That caught my eye, because it linked a "gimmicky" meat to something within my ken, and I asked her, by e-mail, what this was all about. Ms. Williams is from South Africa, and it turns out that her family regularly marinates ostrich fillets and cooks them on an outdoor grill. So this native African bird is a more mainstream food than I thought, just not in my little corner of Manhattan.

Obviously, the next time I saw the ostrich stand at the market, I stopped and chatted and bought two half-pound pieces of boneless meat from the leg (as I learned, there's little breast meat: flightless birds don't need much by way of pectoral muscles). Each piece was well shy of an inch (say, 2 cm) thick at its thickest. Ostrich meat is touted as low in fat (another reason I'd always ignored it) and is deep red in color: it does indeed look rather like venison. And like venison, it needs to be cooked rare or medium-rare at most lest it grow dry, even mealy, and tough.

Once I got into the idea of ostrich as venison, I had a good time pretending it was furry and wild rather than feathery and farmed. A day ahead, I put the meat to marinate (refrigerated) in red wine to cover, a little wine vinegar and a little port; sliced shallot, garlic, ginger and carrot; half a dozen crushed juniper berries, cloves (just a couple), star anise (one) and black peppercorns; and rosemary. After 24 hours, I removed the meat, dried it and trimmed the thin edges, which would have overcooked and which would be the basis for the sauce. The two fillets went back into the fridge, covered with paper toweling, until half an hour before cooking.

Meanwhile, I made the sauce base. This was a version of a typical sort of sauce used for game in French or sort-of-French cooking. If I call it sauce poivrade, people in the know will laugh in my face. But it's along those lines: winy, spicy and intense. Easy, too, thanks to the marinade and ostrich trimmings. I browned the trimmings over medium-high heat, using duck fat to get them going - clarified butter or neutral oil would be more normal, but duck fat generates welcoming kitchen aromas and makes a small contribution to the final sauce. When the meat was brown, I sprinkled it with a teaspoon or less of flour (optional) and let that cook for a minute before adding a couple of tablespoons of Cognac (also optional) and reducing it - ideally without flaming, but if it catches fire, that's life. Then, in went the marinade: spices, vegetables and all. When it came to the boil, I lowered the heat and let it simmer slowly for 20 minutes. At this point it smelled good but tasted harsh; some of this harshness would be smoothed by the next addition: a generous cup of flavorful stock. Amazingly, I had some veal stock in the freezer, but that's a rare thing around here; without that, I'd have used whatever I had, even strong vegetable stock, though a sauce like this cries out for animal juices. If I'd resorted to vegetable stock, I'd have added some dried mushrooms as well; indeed, I could have done that anyway.

After it had simmered, half-covered, for 45 minutes, I strained it; in fact, to ensure a limpid sauce, I squeezed it through a fine-mesh cloth (a piece of woven shower-curtain liner works amazingly well). Now I chilled it; if there'd been any excess fat, it would have risen to the top and congealed, but there was nearly none.

To finish the sauce, I reheated it and added two tablespoons of very tart sour-cherry preserves - good home-made cranberry sauce would be a good substitute. A bit later, as the meat was cooking, I checked for salt and swirled in a very generous tablespoon (around 20 grams) of butter. Combined with the salt and the tart fruit, the butter balanced and smoothed the flavors.

Cooking the meat was just like cooking a little steak: I took it out of the fridge half an hour in advance to warm up, dried it well, salted it generously and seared it for about two minutes per side in a little clarified butter over medium-high heat. I then gave it a scant minute more on each side with the heat turned down to medium; the internal temperature should be 115 to 120 degrees F (46 to 49 C) for rare to not-quite-medium-rare. The temperature will continue to rise as the meat rests, which should be for a good five minutes. I recommend the lower end of the scale for ostrich flesh: it will taste fine medium-rare, but will be tenderer and more appealing properly rare.

As the meat rested, juices collected on the plate, and I added these to the thoroughly reheated sauce before carving the meat on the bias into slices 1/4 to 3/8 inch (6 mm to 1 cm) thick.

The answer to your first question is No: it doesn't taste weird. It also doesn't taste especially like poultry. It has its own fairly mild flavor and was a good, neutral base for the marinade and sauce. Its masquerade as game meat was a convincing one.

Jackie and I drank fancy wine with this dish - apart from the fact that the rich, old-fashioned style of cooking demanded it, it was a special occasion: When it came to facing my exotic-meat prejudices, I'd stopped burying my head in the sand.

Ostrich fillets in aromatics, herbs and spices for their marinade
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Red wine added
Next day: trimmings from the marinated meat, for sauce
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Rich veal stock (gelled) is added to the browned trimmings and the marinade
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
For a more elegant sauce, strain/squeeze it through a cloth
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Sour cherry preserves go into the sauce
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
The ostrich fillets are pan-fried (they could be grilled too)
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
After a rest, the ostrich meat is carved
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Don't mask the meat with sauce
Photograph by Edward Schneider.