I remember eating ostrich for the first time in the late '90s, when it seemed to be everywhere. Waitrose stocked it and gastropubs in the area I grew up (Tunbridge Wells) seemed to jump on the band wagon with ostrich steaks hitting their chalkboard menus. It seemed everyone was trying to get consumers excited by this high iron, low fat and exotic meat back then.
I remember eating it for the first time in a pub with my Grandad, who always encouraged me to try new things, but what I remember most about the experience was how dull the meat was. Perhaps I was expecting too much? A flavour explosion like nothing I'd ever tried before it certainly wasn't. In reality, it was rather dry and uneventful. Sadly, ostrich didn't last long on the supermarket shelves or on the menus of gastropubs, largely because people just didn't know how to cook it.
Ostrich meat has a taste somewhere between venison and duck and should be treated like lean game in the kitchen. It is sacrilege to overcook an ostrich fillet, as all the succulent, juicy flesh will become a desiccated disaster; where all moisture has been sucked out and replaced with chewy flakes of tough meat. Overcooked ostrich is equally, if not more awful, than overcooked pork tenderloin. But, when cooked well, ostrich is sensational - a subtle and tender red meat with less fat than a skinless chicken breast.
Ostrich meat should be brought to room temperature before cooking and should be served rare to medium-rare and must, as with all meat, be left to rest before serving. If you don't like to see any pink on your plate, move away from the ostrich tenderloin now and leave more for the rest of us. If your curiosity is strong enough, I recommend you try ostrich sausages or mince instead.
I sourced the ostrich for O night from the wonderful Gamston Wood Farm, an ostrich farm in Nottinghamshire. They handily have a stall at Borough Market on Fridays and Saturdays and also offer a mail order service for those who want it brought to their doorstep.
I rolled the ostrich in orange zest and "Oriental Beauty Supreme" oolong tea from Jing Tea. The tea and orange added an aromatic and woody depth to the flavour of the meat, without overpowering the ostrich's subtle charms. I made an Oxford Landing red wine reduction to be spooned over the meat and served it with orzotto, a "risotto" made with pearl barley instead of rice, studded with oyster mushrooms and oregano. The vegetable accompaniment was the much neglected onion. Poor old onions are rarely used as a vegetable in their own right. They are mostly used to add extra flavour, then left to play second fiddle to the more starry ingredients of the show. Onions are deliciously sweet, mellow and moreish when roasted and I followed Jamie Oliver's lead and stuffed mine with a mixture of garlic, bacon, herbs, Parmesan and cream to add a little extra indulgence to the dish.
Oolong and orange rolled ostrich
Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan)
2 ostrich tenderloins (this amount of meat could probably have stretched to feed 6)
The finely grated zest of 2 oranges
10g Oolong tea
Plenty of cling film
Simply mix together the tea and orange zest and roll each tenderloin in it until it is evenly coated. You may find it easier to pat the orange oolong on to the meat with your hands. Once coated, wrap each tenderloin individually and tightly in cling film and leave on a plate out of your way until you are ready to cook it.
Once all the other components of the dish are almost ready to serve, unwrap the tenderloins and sear in a hot pan with a little oil and butter. Once seared, transfer the ostrich on to a roasting tray and pop it into your preheated oven for ten minutes for rare or 15 minutes for medium-rare. Once out, transfer to a board and leave to rest for 10-15 minutes before carving. I served mine in thick medallions on top of the orzotto.
Oxford Landing reduction
1 large glass of Oxford Landing Cabernet Shiraz
Same volume of chicken stock
1 shallot, finely chopped
A little butter
Pour the wine in a saucepan with the shallot and leave to simmer until it has reduced by half. Add the stock and continue to simmer until it has reduced by half again. Strain the shallot out of the sauce into a clean saucepan and continue to simmer until the sauce is nice and thick. Finish with a little butter to enrich the sauce.
Oyster mushroom and oregano orzotto
Orzotto is a slower cook dish to risotto, simply because pearl barley needs a lot longer in your pot than rice, so start this an hour before you want to dish up.
400g pearl barley
1 large onion, finely chopped
2-4 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
1 stick of celery, finely chopped
4 rashers of bacon, finely chopped
A punnet of oyster mushrooms, finely chopped
A generous handful of fresh oregano
2 pints of chicken stock
A large wine glass of white wine, I used Oxford Landing Sauvignon Blanc
Salt and pepper
A handful of fresh Parmesan, finely grated
Sauté the onion, garlic, carrots, mushrooms and celery in a little oil in a large heavy bottomed pan. Add the bacon and cook until the vegetables are soft and the bacon is lightly golden. Add the pearl barley and stir for a minute or so and chuck in the wine. Stir to prevent the pearl barley from sticking and pour in the chicken stock. All of it. You don't need to add a little at a time like you would with risotto. Add half the oregano and season generously. Stir thoroughly, pop on the lid and leave to simmer, stirring every now and then, for about 50 minutes. Stir through the Parmesan and add most of the rest of the oregano, leaving a little for scattering on top. Taste for seasoning, adjust accordingly and serve with the final oregano sprinkled over the top.
Adapted from a Jamie Oliver (another "O"!) recipe
2 pints of fresh chicken stock
2 bay leaves
4 small onions, peeled
2-4 cloves of garlic, crushed
A little fresh oregano, picked and chopped
A generous splash or two of double cream
A generous handful of Parmesan, grated
4 rashers of smoked back bacon
Salt and pepper
Boil the onions in the chicken stock with the bay leaves for about 15 minutes or until the onions are slightly tender. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon and leave to cool. You can use this stock for the rest of the dishes above.
Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan)
Once cooled, cut about an inch off the tops and use a spoon to scoop out the middle of the onion, leaving the outer cm intact. If need be, slightly trim the stalk end so that the onions sit flat on a roasting tray.
Heat a little oil in a frying pan and add the chopped up scooped out flesh of the onions, the garlic and half the bacon. Once soft and golden, add the oregano and pour over the cream. Stir thoroughly and remove from the heat before adding the grated Parmesan. Season to taste. Set aside.
Fry off the rest of the bacon until brown. Place the onions on a roasting tray, spoon the creamy filling inside each one and top with a sprinkle of the chopped bacon. Pop the onions in the oven to roast for 25 minutes to half an hour or until soft, bubbling and golden. Serve immediately.