Worried about mad cow? Try the new meats: bison, ostrich and emu.

This article first appeared in the Wine Spectator.

Would you sell your soul, your first born, or perhaps that case of 1982 Chateau Le Pin if you could eat delicious red meat that had less fat and fewer calories than skinless chicken? Well, you don’t have to. Just start eating buffalo or ostrich, two alternative red meats that are that are turning up on restaurant menus all over the nation. Even emu is making inroads.

So far, buffalo has gotten the most attention. Because these animals don’t store intramuscular fat, they are much leaner than cattle. And yet they are actually bovines, unrelated to old-world cape and water buffalo. A 3.5-ounce serving of cooked “bison”—the preferred term—contains 2.42 grams of fat and 143 calories, compared to beef, which has 9.28 grams of fat and 211 calories, and skinless chicken, which has which has 7.41 grams of fat and 190 calories. Ostrich is healthier still: a three-ounce portion has only two grams of fat and 96 calories. Emu has a comparable nutritional profile. But these “new meats” don’t taste like health food.

“The flavor of buffalo is incredible. Customers tell me it’s better than beef,” says Francois Fotre, chef and owner of La Mirabelle, a popular Dallas bistro, where bison fillets are prepared au poivre (with black peppercorns) or with a Bordelaise or horseradish sauce. At the Ritz Carlton in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, executive chef Eric Chopin cooks ostrich fillets wrapped in apple-smoked bacon and serves them with an orange Shiraz sauce. “People are scared of beef now. We tell them that ostrich is a very lean red meat that doesn’t have the fat or hormones in beef,” he says.

After being slaughtered to near extinction at the end of the 19th century, buffalo have made a remarkable recovery, increasing in number by 20 percent a year for the last 10 years. Today, there are about 350,000 in North America, the vast majority of them on private lands in the Great Plains of the United States and in central Canada (primarily Alberta). And the more we eat, the more there will be. “Only surplus bulls are used for meat,” says Sam Albrecht, of the National Bison Association, in Denver. “Females are kept back.”

Some bison producers say the increased popularity is creating pressure to treat their animals like conventional cattle. Some are now given grain in feedlots for the latter part of their lives, instead of roaming freely and grazing on wild grasses exclusively. However, there is no evidence that the feedlot approach changes the nutritional profile of the meat.

Ostrich comes originally from Africa and Asia. But this largest of all birds has proved hardy enough to thrive in a variety of North American climates, in Arizona, Wisconsin, and everywhere in between. It is so disease-resistant “you could inject a bird with e-coli and it wouldn’t kill it,” says Jack Nadwornik, director of operations for Pokanoket, a Massachusetts-based ostrich ranch.

Until about five years ago, the ostrich industry was plagued by speculators, who tried to make a killing by selling birds and eggs for breeding at inflated prices. Now traditional farmers are raising ostrich for meat. People haven’t been as quick to accept it as they did bison, but it’s catching on.  “When I first started selling it, people looked at me as if I was from another planet,” says La Rae Derr of Blue Star Farms in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. “Kids would say, ‘That’s Big Bird we’re eating!’ Now we get a lot of heart and diabetic patients and Boomers concerned about health. Once they try it, they say, ‘Wow, this tastes like steak.’”

Emu, which is native to Australia, is a harder sell than ostrich because birds offer just one-third the meat, and because equal focus has been placed on emu oil, which enthusiasts claim has remarkable curative properties for the skin. While many feel there is no difference between emu and ostrich meat, Michael Armellino, owner of Bilbo Baggins restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, disagrees. “It tastes more like duck than beef and it’s more tender than ostrich,” he says.

I prepared all three of these new meats in my own kitchen. I first tried several cuts of bison, from D’Angelo Brothers Meat Market in Philadelphia. They had a deeper, richer color than beef and a denser texture. The flavor was similar to well-aged beef in some respects, though bison is sweeter with a cleaner finish.

More forgiving than venison, bison should nonetheless be cooked rare to medium-rare because there is so little fat to keep it moist. Thicker Porterhouse steaks and filet mignon are best done on the grill. Thinner cuts like sirloin and New York strip are better pan-fried. For the latter, sear a seven-ounce steak for 30 seconds on each side in a hot cast iron skillet lubricated with olive oil. Remove the meat to a plate, then add chopped shallots and about 3/4 cup red wine to the pan. Bring it to a boil, put the steak back in, and put the skillet into a preheated 325-degree oven for 10 minutes.

The sear and bake method (sans wine) also worked well on a rib-eye roast. Have your bison burgers rare without fear of e-coli. Ground bison also makes terrific meatballs. Bison stew beats the pants off beef stew—it’s heartier and more satisfying.

Most of the usable meat in the ostrich comes from the upper leg. Retailers generally carry just the fan fillet, from the inner thigh, because it is the most tender and easiest to work with. Ostrich, like bison, is deep red, with a smoother, less grainy texture. I like it sliced into scaloppini (1-2 ounces each), which I dust with flour and quickly sauté in a hot skillet--about 30 seconds per side. I deglaze the pan with wine or brandy to make a simple sauce. When I tasted ostrich and emu cooked side by side this way I was hard-pressed to tell the difference. Both had a beefy quality, but with elements of duck breast. Both were sweet and tender.

If you do wind up with an “inside fillet,” from higher up on the thigh, cook it as you would a London broil, keeping it medium rare to rare (salmonella is not a concern). Cut it against the grain, arrange it on some hearty greens with an olive oil and balsamic dressing, and you’ve got a super main-course salad. Ostrich and emu burgers are so lean that you may yearn for a few bacon slices on top. But if you don’t overcook them, they’ll be juicy enough without.

When choosing a wine, stay away from tannins—there isn’t enough fat in these meats to fend them off. Ripe, berry-flavored wines like Pinot Noir and Zinfandel are ideal, as is California Cabernet. You could also try a cru Beaujolais, such as a Moulin-a-Vent, or a mature red Bordeaux or Cotes du Rhone. With all that red wine and lean meat, you may put your cardiologist out of business.

How to Get It

Buffalo costs about $9 a pound for ground meat to $30 or more a pound for the tenderloin. Ostrich and emu range from about $9 a pound for ground meat to about $20 a pound for fan fillet.

American Emu Association, Dallas, Texas, 800-304-8768, www.aea-emu.org

American Ostrich Association, Ranger, TX, 254-647-1645, www.ostriches.org

D’Angelo Brothers Meat Market, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 215-923-5637, www.dangelobros.com,  (buffalo, ostrich, emu)

D’Artagnan, Newark, New Jersey, 800-327-8246; www.dartagnan.com (buffalo, ostrich)

National Bison Association, Westminster,Colo. 303-292-2833 www.bisoncentral.com

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