If beef alternatives such as chicken and fish leave you yearning for sirloin, it may be time to stick your neck out and try a new poultry dish: barbecued ostrich. Like beef, it's red meat, but much lower in fat and calories. There's just one problem--it's a lot more expensive.

Europeans have been eating ostrich for years, but until 1992, it couldn't easily be found in the U.S. With trade bans lifted, ostriches imported from South Africa are being bred and slaughtered here. Breeder Chip Polvoorde, president of Brandywine Meats in Escondido, Calif., believes there are at least two dozen big ranches in the U.S. with 1,000 or more birds. At larger breeders, the birds graze on alfalfa supplemented with corn and vitamins. Owners slaughter the ostriches between 9 and 16 months of age. Older birds, like older cattle, yield tougher meat.

Ostrich has an outstanding nutritional profile that's similar to American bison. A 100-gram cooked portion of lean ostrich meat has about the same protein content as beef, 27% to 30%. But the ostrich has one-third fewer calories--142--than beef, which has 211, according to government and university studies. Ostrich also has two-thirds less fat, just 3 grams, than its bovine rival, which has 9.3 grams. ``Cardiologists have given ostrich two thumbs up,'' says Doug Hendrix, a spokesman for Von's, the supermarket chain that carries the meat of this big bird at its 32 Pavilion stores in California.

LOW-FAT. Dark brown when raw, some ostrich cuts are almost liver-like in appearance. You'll find no fat to trim from the edges--or to add to weight and cost--and none is ``marbled'' into the meat. Lacking fat, ostrich will provide more nutrition than beef. But this meat doesn't give you that long-lasting ``full'' feeling you get from eating slower-to-digest fatty foods. Because ostrich is so lean, much of its flavor must be accented with spices such as pepper and garlic powder, or Worcestershire sauce on the cooked bird. Marinating is a good idea because it tenderizes as well.

Ostrich cooks faster than other meats, and thin steaks and fillets toughen if overcooked. So approach it as you would veal, and don't even think about trying it well-done. Steaks should be cooked medium-rare to medium (to an internal temperature of 140 to 160 degrees). Place half-inch cuts closer to the coals or heat source and cook each side for three to five minutes, advises food consultant Sandra Hildreth, who learned the hard way. She bought a large order of ostrich steaks for a barbecue party, then underspiced and overcooked them. ``Everybody smiled and said, `Mmmmm,' and nobody ate,'' she says. Now, she is the author of Cooking Ostrich with Confidence (self-published, $30, 817 447-6964 to order).

What you taste with a mouthful of ostrich depends partly on preparation, partly on perception. ``It tastes more like steak than chicken,'' says Tammy Baker, a registered dietitian based in Phoenix. Other people say ostrich reminds them of duck.

Even the best ostrich prices are at least twice those of beef. Fillets and steaks are $14 and $15 a pound; roasts run $10 to $11; and ground meat and sausage are $4 to $6. Few major supermarket chains stock ostrich, but you can find it at a growing number of specialty shops and can order it via mail and online services. Look for ostrich meat that is approved by the Agriculture Dept. or prepared under Food & Drug Administration standards enforced by individual states.

If ostrich finds a place on your grill this summer, then maybe you'd be interested in another South African import that ranchers are breeding to offer as another alternative to beef: Boer goat. In many backyards, barbecued burgers just may never be the same.



Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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