In gleaming chef’s whites last Friday at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, six amateur and professional cooks took to the stoves, battling one another to come up with a delicious, appealing and creative spin on a protein so commonplace in our diets that most of us eat it at least twice a week.
Of course, that would be chicken.
This was the first ever Foster Farms West Coast Chicken Cooking Contest. The grand prize? A cool $10,000, plus a year’s supply of Foster Farms fresh chickens.
More than 2,000 folks entered the contest, which was limited to entrants from California, Oregon and Washington. On Friday, two regional finalists from each state competed in the final cook-off, which was judged by yours truly, along with Lena Birnbaum, associate food editor of Bon Appetit magazine; Elaine Johnson, associate food editor of Sunset magazine; and Michele Kayal, a contributing writer for the Associated Press and creator of the Hyphenated Chef blog.
The contest is the successor to the long-running National Chicken Cooking Contest, which began in 1949, but ended last year because of economic issues. That was when West Coast-based Foster Farms, family-owned since 1939, stepped in to carry on the tradition with a contest of its own.
The contest was open to both professional and homecooks. Contestants were required to use Foster Farms chicken in their recipes, which were designed to serve four, as well as an abundance of fresh and local ingredients. The only caveat was that the recipes could not involve grilling, as Foster Farms reps wanted recipes that could be cooked year-round in any part of the country.
At 8:30 a.m., we judges gathered with forks and knives to taste chicken bright and early. The contestants, who would cook in the kitchen three at a time and have 90 minutes to complete their dish, were already hunched over cutting boards, slicing chicken, chopping garlic and carefully measuring sugar and oil.
The judges would be presented with a contestant’s dish the moment it was completed. And in a fun twist, a fancier plated version cooked by CIA chefs would also be brought to our table so we could see how the home-cooked dish would look if a restaurant served it.
At 9:15 a.m., the first dish arrived: Panko-Crusted Lemon Butter Chicken with Israeli Couscous Salad, created by Rebekkah Leber of Hayward, a culinary school grad and former pastry chef in Portland.
Fifteen minutes later, the second one was put in front of us: Brown Rice Chicken Salad from Marci Adelsman of Kent, Wash., a licensed esthetician and massage therapist.
We chewed and savored, then silently scored our judging sheets for each recipe.
A half hour later, Sesame Chicken with Chili Dip was whisked to our table, cooked by Timmy Baker of Eugene, Ore., an advertising executive at a Eugene newspaper.
A short break followed, before the final three contestants entered the kitchen to begin cooking their dishes.
At 11:15 a.m., Balsamic Mushroom Chicken with Honey Goat Cheese was set before us, from Monica King of Vancouver, Wash., a mom to four teenagers, who works full-time at her local hospital.
Next, Spinach Stuffed Chicken Breasts from Alexandria Boswell of La Jolla, a real estate broker who will graduate in December from the San Diego Culinary Institute.
Finally, at almost the same time, the final dish came before us: Basil Fontina Fondue Chicken Tenders from Russell Kool of Hillsboro, Ore., who is the executive chef of Portland Prime.
The scores were tallied in what was an extremely close race, with a mere couple points separating the bulk of the competitors.
In the end, though, it was Boswell’s Spinach Stuffed Chicken Breasts that won us over. The simple dish has the bright flavors of spinach, loads of dill and fontina stuffed into moist chicken breasts that get a crunchy, golden coating of panko breadcrumbs. The dish has a comforting taste to it, yet looks elegant enough to serve to guests at a chic dinner party.
This is the first cooking contest that Boswell has ever participated in. In fact, she says, she didn’t even tell her culinary school classmates for the longest time that she had entered it.
She first learned to cook from her Japanese-Korean mother. Her mother, who was there to cheer her on, proudly says her daughter is the better cook in the family now.
Boswell says she isn’t sure yet what she will do with the $10,000. But she definitely knows what the year’s supply of chicken is destined for.
“I’m going to have a big barbecue for all my friends!” she says, beaming.
Enjoy Boswell’s recipe below. Find the recipes from the other five finalists, who each received $1,000, by clicking here.
Alexandria Boswell’s Spinach Stuffed Chicken Breasts
4 Foster Farms chicken breast halves, boneless and skinless
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup onion, finely diced
1 bag (10 ounces) spinach leaves
1/4 cup fresh dill, chopped
1/2 cup Feta cheese crumbles
1/2 cup Monterey Jack cheese, grated
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In large skillet over medium-high heat, warm olive oil. Add onions to skillet and sauté until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add spinach to skillet, cover, reduce heat to medium and cook until spinach is wilted. Transfer onion and spinach to large bowl. Add dill, Feta cheese, Monterey Jack cheese, salt and pepper to bowl; mix well to combine.
Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Place eggs in small bowl and panko in pie plate. Spray baking sheet with cooking spray and set aside.
Using sharp knife, slit each chicken breast along long side, cutting only about 3/4 of the way through. Divide spinach mixture into four sections and stuff each breast with a portion of the mixture. Dip breasts first in egg mixture and then in panko to coat. Place chicken on prepared pan and lightly coat chicken with olive oil cooking spray. Place in hot oven and cook 45 minutes or until chicken is done.