- Associated Press - Thursday, January 19, 2012

Let’s have a quick show of hands among the diet-conscious: Who’s craving a plain baked chicken breast right now?

Exactly. No one.

Chicken breasts au naturel don’t ring my bells either, so I’m always looking for ways to pair chicken with flavor detonators to have myself a real meal. One of my favorite ways to enjoy chicken is to dispense with the breasts altogether. And since I’m a thigh man, I opt to use chicken thighs instead.

Yes, it’s true the thigh is fattier than the breast - about 8 grams per 4-ounce cooked portion - but the fat brings with it the extra zing and moisture breasts so often can lack.

Plus, the dark meat of the thigh contains the nutritional jackpot of more iron and twice the zinc of white meat. Better yet, you’ll be saving more than 400 calories a serving here, compared to a classically prepared chicken dish like coq au vin.

And if you’re a novice cook, that extra fat also means it’s harder to screw up a recipe with chicken thighs, no matter how you cook them. Unlike with chicken breasts, thighs rarely end up overcooked or dry.

My recipe for braised chicken thighs, which is perfect for a hearty winter meal, combines two techniques: browning over high heat and cooking with quick, low-heat braise, either in the oven or a slow cooker.

Braising foods is a great way to create tender, meaty dishes. Cook this dish at a lower temperature in your slow cooker if you need to be away from the kitchen for the day. Or you can do it in the oven at 275 degrees for 3 to 5 hours. Just be sure you have a tight-fitting cover for your pot to make sure the liquid doesn’t evaporate.

BRAISED CHICKEN WITH MUSHROOMS AND MUSTARD

Start to finish: 1 hour (20 minutes active), plus cooling

Servings: 4

1 cup fat-free, reduced-sodium chicken stock or broth

20 dried shiitake mushrooms

8 small bone-in chicken thighs (about 2 1/2 pounds total), skinned

Salt and ground black pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onion

1/2 cup sweet red vermouth (such as Martini Rossi), divided

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard

2 teaspoons lightly chopped fresh thyme

In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the chicken stock and mushrooms. Bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover and set aside.

Refrigerate the mushrooms and chicken stock overnight. The next day, remove and discard the mushroom stems. Cut mushroom caps in half and return to the stock.

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Season all the chicken pieces with salt and pepper.

In a large Dutch oven or other oven-safe pot, heat the oil over medium-high. Add the chicken, half at a time if necessary, and brown on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer the chicken to a plate, then add the onions to the pan. Cook over medium heat until the onions are softened, about 3 minutes. Add half of the vermouth and stir to deglaze the pan.

Return the chicken to the pan, then add the stock and mushroom mixture. Cover and bring to a simmer.

Transfer the pot to the oven and bake, covered, for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through.

Once the chicken is cooked, uncover the pot. Place the pot on a burner over medium heat and add both mustards, the remaining vermouth and the thyme. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for about 10 minutes, or until the sauce thickens slightly and glazes the chicken.

Divide the chicken among 4 plates. Spoon the sauce over and around the chicken.

Rocco DiSpirito is author of the “Now Eat This!” and “Now Eat This! Diet” cookbooks.