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Scenes from the Third Annual Foster Farms Fresh Chicken Cooking Contest

If you were a chicken, the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena was a dangerous place to be last Friday.

But if you were a cook, gunning to show your prowess with the country’s most popular protein, you couldn’t have picked a better venue.

The occasion?

The third annual Foster Farms Fresh Chicken Cooking Contest, which pitted six finalists (two each from California, Washington state and Oregon) against one another for the grand prize of $10,000, plus a year’s supply of Foster Farms chicken.

It was my third time judging this contest, and each year the recipes seem to get better and better.

My fellow judges were: Chef John Ash, host of KSRO-AM “The Good Food Hour”; Lynn Char Bennett, test kitchen director for the San Francisco Chronicle; Chef Ken Frank of La Toque in Napa; and Liam Mayclem, host of CBS’ “Eye on the Bay.”

The six finalists, culled from thousands of entrants, were chosen after cook-offs were held in each of the three states.

Friday morning, three contestants cooked at a time, getting 90 minutes to complete their dish. We judges scrutinized each dish set before us, looking for great flavor, beautiful presentation, use of local ingredients, simplicity and imagination.

In the first wave, there was Judith Berman-Yamada of Portland, Ore. preparing “Cumin Chicken Paillards with Grape Tomatoes, Scallions and Wine”; Merry Graham of Newhall, Calif. cooked her “Lemon-Hoisin Glazed Chicken on Roasted Asparagus and Cherry Sesame Rice”; and Rebecca Cameron of Bonney Lake, Wash. with her “Tea Rubbed Chicken with Apple Spinach Salad and Spicy Nuts.”

In the second wave, Karen Bernards of McMinnville, Ore. whipped up “Hoisin Chicken Thighs”; Jackie Dodd of Los Angeles cooked “Spice Rubbed Thighs with Chipotle Bearnaise and Avocado Lime Quinoa Salad”; and Sandra Gray of Seattle, Wash. put the finishing touches on “Cherry and Goat Cheese Stuffed Chicken with Merlot Scented Lentils.”

Interestingly enough, most of the recipes made use of chicken thighs, echoing an uptick in the general public’s growing acceptance of dark meat, which is more flavorful and juicier than white, according to Foster Farms officials.

Judges always like to say the results were incredibly close. But in this case, it really was. There were three standout dishes that we favored, their scores separated by only a point each. After some back and forth, we came to a consensus, choosing a dish with bold, complex flavors of sweet, tangy and spicy: “Lemon-Hoisin Glazed Chicken on Roasted Asparagus and Cherry Sesame Rice.”

This year, the public also got to award a “People’s Choice Award.” Last weekend, 5,000 folks held dinner parties at their homes to cook the final six recipes and to vote on their favorite.

That honor went to Bernards’ “Hoisin Chicken Thighs” served atop mango-cilantro rice. She won a year’s supply of chicken, a gift basket and a $1,000 gift card to the CIA’s culinary store.

If you’d like to try your hand at the winning recipes, go to FosterFarms.com.

More: Scenes from the 2011 Foster Farms Fresh Chicken Cooking Contest

And: A Look at the 2010 Contest

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