There’s a longstanding debate when it comes to chicken: breasts or thighs, light or dark? We know that white meat has less fat and calories, but it also has less flavor pizzazz.

A hundred grams of skinless (roasted) chicken thigh, about 3 1/2 ounces, contains 209 calories and has 10.9 grams of fat. Compare that with the same amount of skinless (roasted) chicken breast at 165 calories and 3.57 grams of fat. In terms of saturated fat, that amount of thigh meat contains 2 grams more than the breast, 3 grams instead of 1 gram.

But nutritional profiles don’t tell the whole story. Chicken thighs are moister and offer a richer, more distinct taste.  Plus, when it comes to my food budget, it’s hard to ignore that thighs are a much bigger bargain than breasts.

Mmmm, Chicken Thighs and Quinoa with Figs, Spinach and Mint

I was pleasantly surprised when judging the California Regional Finals of the Second Annual Foster Farms Fresh Chicken Cooking Contest in San Diego. Out of the six competitors, the two winning finalists used chicken thighs rather than breasts.

Mmmm,  Asian Braised Chicken Thighs with Edamame Salad.

Their dark meat dishes qualified them to compete in the finals held in the Napa Valley and garnered each a $1000 prize. Jennifer Daskevich, Los Angeles, stayed in the competition with her Chicken and Quinoa with Figs, Spinach and Mint, as did Roxanne Chan, Albany, with her Asian Braised Chicken Thighs with Edamame Salad.

Crispy Orange Chicken with Fennel, Avocado and Orange Salad beat out the other five finalists’ dishes.

Cookbook author-teacher-PBS culinary star Jacques Pepin has a technique for cooking bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs that really changed the way I cook that cut. He cooks them, skin-side-down in a dry skillet. The pan is covered after they start to sizzle and the little darlings cook in the rendered fat, turning a beautiful golden brown with super-crisp skin.

Pepin makes a little incision in the meat on either side of the thigh bone before cooking them, preventing the “pink next to the bone” problem. And the majority of the fat is removed from the pan before he prepares a simple fresh mushroom sauce to accompany the meat.

Jacques Pepin and the California finalists in the Foster Farms contest prefer chicken thighs over breasts. But when it came to the final competition, Rebecca Spence of Vancouver, WA, won the $10,000 grand prize (plus 1 year’s supply of chicken) showcasing chicken breasts.

So the question of which is better, breast or thigh? It depends on the dish, the cooking technique, and well, your palate’s preference.

Chicken and Quinoa with Figs, Spinach and Mint
Yield: 4 servings
6 chicken thighs, boneless and skinless, cut into bite-sized chunks
6 sprigs fresh thyme, divided use
7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided use
1 large lemon, zested and juiced
6 garlic cloves, divided use
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped, divided use
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 teaspoons salt, divided use
1 cup uncooked quinoa, see cook’s notes
2 large shallots, minced
1/2 cup dried mission figs, halved
2 cups water, divided use
3 cups fresh spinach, chopped
Cook’s notes: Quinoa, pronounced KEEN-wah, looks like a grain, but is the fruit of a broadleaf plant, so it is a seed. It is completely gluten free. Look for it in the natural foods sections at supermarkets, generally packaged in small boxes.
1. In large plastic bag with zipper lock top, place chicken. Remove leaves from three sprigs of thyme and mince. In small bowl, whisk together 5 tablespoons olive oil, juice and zest from lemon, two minced garlic cloves, thyme, 1 tablespoon chopped mint, black pepper and 1 teaspoon salt. Pour mixture over chicken, turning to coat well. Set aside and marinate 30 minutes or up to one hour.
2. Place quinoa in sieve and rinse with cold water; drain thoroughly. In medium saucepan over medium heat, toast quinoa for two minutes. Add 1 teaspoon salt and 1 3/4 cups water to quinoa; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until all liquid is absorbed, about 12 to 15 minutes. Remove quinoa from heat and set aside to cool for 5 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, while quinoa is cooking, warm remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium high heat in large skillet. Add shallot and remaining salt; saute until softened, about 5 minutes. Add remaining garlic and stir for additional minute. Add figs, remaining 1/4 cup of water and remaining 3 stems of thyme. Cook until liquid is absorbed, about 3 minutes. Remove chicken from marinade and add to fig mixture. Continue to cook over medium heat until chicken is cooked through, about 7 minutes. Remove sprigs of thyme.
4. Fluff quinoa with fork and transfer to skillet. Stir well to combine. Add spinach and remaining mint, stirring gently to incorporate all ingredients.
Nutrition information (per serving): 300 calories,45  percent of calories from fat, 15 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 23 g carbohydrates, 18 g protein, 480 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
Source: Jennifer Daskevich, Los Angeles, CA, finalists in the Second Annual Foster Farms Chicken Cooking Contest

Asian Braised Chicken Thighs with Edamame Salad
Yield: 4 servings
6 chicken thighs, boneless and skinless
1/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1/3 cup bottled green salsa
1 lime, zested and juiced
1 green onion, minced
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon green curry paste
1 teaspoon sodium-reduced soy sauce
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
1 cup shelled edamame (soy beans), cooked, see cook’s notes
2 cups watercress, chopped
1/4 cup grated carrot
1/4 cup sliced red radishes
1/2 cup baby corn, chopped
1 tablespoon Asian (roasted) sesame oil
1 tablespoon seasoned rice vinegar
Cook’s notes: Cooked edamame (soy beans) are sold frozen, or cooked-and-chilled in the produce section.
1. In blender, combine chicken broth, salsa, lime juice, green onion, cilantro, garlic, curry paste, soy sauce and ginger. Blend until smooth. Place mixture in medium size skillet; add chicken. Bring chicken to a low simmer over medium heat, cover and cook 35 to 40 minutes, turning occasionally, until chicken is tender and cooked throughout.
2. While chicken is cooking, prepare salad by combining in large bowl edamame, watercress, carrots, radishes, baby corn, sesame oil and vinegar. Stir to combine.
3. Place cooked chicken on serving platter; cover with pan sauce. Garnish with lime zest. Surround chicken with watercress and soy bean salad.
Nutrition information (per serving): 370 calories, 38 percent of calories from fat, 15g fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, 51 mg cholesterol, 29 g carbohydrates, 12 g protein, 530 mg sodium, 4.4 g fiber
Source: Roxanne Chan, Albany, CA, finalist in the Second Annual Foster Farms Chicken Cooking Contest

Jacques Pepin’s Crusty Chicken Thighs with Mushroom Sauce – SO GOOD
Yield: 4 servings
4 large chicken thighs, about 1 3/4 pounds total, skin on
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup diced onion
1 1/2 tablespoons coarsely chopped garlic
3 cups washed and diced white mushrooms or cremini mushrooms
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives or green portion of green onion
1. Arrange chicken thighs skin side down on a cutting board. Using a sharp paring knife, trim off any excess skin at the edges and cut about 1/2-inch deep into the flesh on either side of the thigh bone. (This will help the meat cook more quickly.) Sprinkle the thighs with 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper and arrange them skin side down in one layer in a nonstick skillet with a tight-fitting lid.
2. Place skillet over high heat and when thighs start sizzling reduce heat to medium, cover tightly and cook for 16 to 18 minutes, checking occasionally to make sure the chicken is browning properly. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 150 degrees. If chicken seems to be cooking too fast after 10 minutes or so, reduce heat to low. The skin of the chicken should be very crisp and brown. Transfer the chicken skin side up to an ovenproof platter and place in oven.
3. Discard all but 2 tablespoons fat from the skillet in which you cooked the chicken. Add onion, garlic and mushrooms; sauté over high heat for about 3 minutes. Sprinkle remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper on the mushrooms and then add the wine and any liquid that has accumulated around the thighs on the platter. Cook the sauce over high heat for about 1 minute to reduce liquid.
4. To serve, divide the sauce among 4 plates. Place thigh in the middle of mushroom sauce on each plate, spoon some sauce over and sprinkle on chives and serve.
Nutrition information (per serving): 330 calories,46  percent of calories from fat, 17 g fat, 4.1 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 31 g carbohydrates, 24 g protein,470 mg sodium, 2.0 g fiber
Source: Jacques Pepin, “Jacques Pepin More Fast Food My Way” (Houghton Mifflin, $32)

Crispy Orange Chicken with Fennel, Avocado and Orange Salad
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1 to 1 1/2 pounds thin-sliced chicken breast fillets
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 tablespoon Champagne vinegar (may substitute white wine vinegar)
2 teaspoons sugar
Zest from 2 large navel oranges (reserve one orange)
2 teaspoons salt, divided use
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided use
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large fennel bulb, trimmed
1 large avocado
1 fresh serrano chili
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
1/3 cup peanut oil
Cook’s notes: Use caution when working with fresh chilies; upon completion wash hands and work surface thoroughly and do NOT touch face or eyes.
1. In large bowl, whisk together orange juice, vinegar, sugar, 1 teaspoon orange zest, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Slowly whisk in olive oil. Set aside.
2. Cut peel and white pith away from reserved zested orange; cut orange into small cubes. 3. Chop fennel bulb into small cubes. Peel avocado, remove pit and chop into small cubes. Cut chili in half lengthwise, remove and discard seeds and finely mince. Place orange pieces, fennel, avocado and chile in bowl containing dressing; toss gently and refrigerate while preparing chicken.
3.Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Place flour in shallow bowl; combine with remaining salt and pepper. In second shallow bowl, beat eggs well with fork. Place panko breadcrumbs in third shallow bowl; stir in zest from one orange.
4. In large skillet over medium high heat, warm peanut oil. Dredge each chicken fillet in flour mixture, then dip in eggs and coat with panko-orange mixture. Place coated chicken in hot oil and sauté, turning, about 5 minutes on each side, or until golden brown and cooked throughout. Remove chicken with tongs and place on bakers rack over a rimmed baking sheet in oven to keep warm.
5. To serve, place salad on plates. Top each salad with one or two chicken fillets.
Nutrition information (per serving): 360 calories, 38 percent of calories from fat, 15 g fat, 3.1 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 10.1g carbohydrates, 45 g protein, 591 mg sodium, 2.3g fiber
Source: Rebecca Spence, Vancouver, WA, winner of the Second Annual Foster Farms Fresh Chicken Cooking Contest