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By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The chef gives the cantaloupe-size ostrich egg a couple of firm taps around the center with the back of a knife, just until the glossy ivory-colored shell cracks and a small hole opens up. It's barely enough room for her to get her thumbs inside. With a deep sigh, she pulls and pries open the thick shell.

Out gushes a glistening lake and sun of white and yolk -- equal to about two dozen chicken eggs -- into a large bowl. After a chorus of "Wow!" the onlookers agree: None of us has ever seen anything quite like this before.

With a pinch of salt and a splash of olive oil in a large heated skillet, the Washington Post's executive chef, Marleen Ameye, prepares enough fluffy scrambled ostrich egg to fill a platter. The flavor is mild, the color a deep yellow. There's easily enough to feed a dozen people. For a few moments we feel like Edie, the memorable Egg Lady of John Waters's film "Pink Flamingos," obsessing over an egg.

The ostrich is one of five unusual eggs we purchased at the Whole Foods Market in Fair Lakes and asked Ameye to help us sample. Also into a shopping cart went gorgeous dark green emu eggs, fragile speckled quail eggs and delicate white duck and goose eggs.

In the world of edible eggs, these varieties represent a small fraction of total domestic egg production, with numbers so small that they are not even tracked. Americans, of course, are chicken-egg eaters; in January alone, more than 7.6 billion chicken eggs were produced.

Still, there are about 1,000 ostrich ranchers in the United States raising about 100,000 birds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On average, an ostrich hen lays 50 eggs or more a year (commercial chickens lay more than 250). Because of the 1/8 -inch-thick shell and a secreted coating that makes the egg shiny and acts as a preservative, ostrich eggs can keep in the refrigerator for up to a year.

Overall, when we taste the scrambled spread in the Post kitchen, we prefer the ostrich egg to the emu, which has an off-putting, syrupy white and a bulging yolk so pale that when whisked together the combination looks like ivory frosting. Scrambled, the results are fluffier than the other eggs and the flavor mild, but the barely off-white color is hard to get used to.

Emu, native to Australia and with a population of about 1 million in this country, are raised in more than 40 states for their eggs, meat, hide, feathers and oil. The beautiful eggs that emu lay every three to five days are prized by hobbyists, who etch and carve designs into the shell, exposing various colored layers underneath. First, the white and yolk are removed by drilling a small hole in each end of the egg and blowing out the contents.

"As a farmer, it makes sense to blow the egg out, feed your family and then sell the shell," says Myra Charleston, an emu rancher from Trezevant, Tenn., and spokeswoman for the American Emu Association.

After emptying the shell, Charleston whisks the white and yolk together, adds 1/2 teaspoon of sugar or salt per cup of egg and freezes the mixture in an ice cube tray, to be kept at the ready for sweet or savory recipes. Either mixture can be used in any recipe that calls for chicken eggs. Scrambled, an emu egg has a more pronounced flavor than a chicken egg and a denser texture.

Duck eggs are higher than chicken eggs in saturated fat (3 milligrams vs. 2) and cholesterol (619 milligrams vs. 212). And with a higher level of protein and richness, they are sought out by pastry chefs.

Jonathan Zearfoss, who teaches advanced cooking and pastry at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., calls duck eggs "a really nice item, particularly for custards, ice cream, creme brulee and flan. They bring a real richness, a yolky quality." He says the only downside for novices would be calculating the recipe adjustments. (Zearfoss tells his students to expect a large, raw chicken egg to weigh about 2 ounces, while a duck egg weighs an average 2.5 ounces.)


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