As Food52 gets older (and wiser), and our archive of recipes grows, we're making the effort to revisit some gold recipes and pick the brains that invented them. Today, learn all about (and make) the hands-off Moroccan chicken that's just as good for weeknight dinner as it is for a dinner party.
Maybe you’ve seen Sonali Ruder—aka The Foodie Physician—as a contestant on the Food Network’s Ultimate Recipe Showdown, or maybe you’ve seen her as a judge on Chopped or an expert on The Dr. Oz Show. Maybe you’ve read her recipes in Food & Wine or EveryDay with Rachael Ray. Or maybe you’ve had an accident in the kitchen and taken yourself to the emergency room and The Foodie Physician was your actual physician.
“I got into cooking because it lets me express my creative side,” says Dr. Ruder, who now splits her time between being an ER doctor and food blogger. “I started cooking when I was doing my residency; cooking was a way to de-stress after a crazy day.” But merely cooking for herself wasn’t enough; Dr. Ruder started entering cooking competitions (including Food52 contests; she’s won four). She regularly competed in various cook-offs for 8 years, traveling around the country and sharing her dishes. Eventually, she decided she wanted to go back to basics and learn the fundamentals of cooking, “like real culinary technique.” So she enrolled in culinary school. For a year she spent her days treating patients in the ER and her nights learning to make sauces and pastry.
As she formally learned to cook, she began sharing her newfound skills on her blog, The Foodie Physician. Ten years later, she’s authored 4 cookbooks, contributed to 6 more (including the first two Food52 cookbooks), and found her voice. “My whole message now is eating well to prevent disease—and cooking at home is one of the best ways to prevent chronic disease,” says Ruder. “I treat people everyday with diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease all the time. These can be prevented with proper nutrition, so my big thing is trying to get people into the kitchen, cooking more.”
Sarah Whitman-Salkin: You posted this recipe in 2009. When was the last time you made this dish?
Sonali Ruder: I think it was probably last year. One of the funny things about being a food blogger: I’m always posting new recipes every week, so I rarely make the same thing twice. But one of the great things about Food52 is that I get an email every time someone comments on the recipe, so I still get comments on this recipe 9 years later!
SWS: What was the inspiration behind this recipe?
SR: I was a culinary student when I came up with this recipe, and at the time, I was all about exploring different, international flavors, and cooking techniques. Reading over the way I wrote it, I saw that I’d written that you sear the chicken and then you put in the chicken stock until it’s 2/3 of the way up the sides of the chicken—that’s totally something we learned in culinary school: when you’re braising, the liquid should come 2/3 of the way up.
SWS: Preserved lemons play a big part in this dish. Many commenters found workarounds for the preserved lemon: grated zest, thinly sliced and roasted lemons, fresh lemon juice, even lemon marmalade.
SR: Preserved lemons are a lot more readily available nowadays. I actually hadn’t tasted preserved lemons before I created this recipe; I learned about them in culinary school. I’m Indian, and in Indian cuisine, we do a lot of pickles. My mom used to make a homemade lemon pickle when I was growing up, and preserved lemons are similar. But I think the first time I ever used or bought preserved lemons was when I made this dish.
SWS: I totally get that: the impulse to explore a new ingredient. But then you’re left with this whole jar of preserved lemons. What are some other ways to use it?
SR: I like to add a little to my sandwiches. They’re good in pasta with olive oil and garlic, too, or stirred into grain salads or couscous. You can pretty much put them in anything.
SWS: What do you serve this chicken with?
SR: You want something to soak up the sauce, because the sauce is definitely the star of the dish. I pretty much always make it with couscous, with either plain roasted vegetables or salad on the side. Merrill and Amanda used to test all the finalists [for the recipe contests] and they used Israeli couscous. You could do rice or farro, too.
SWS: Israeli couscous is another one of those things that was hard to find 10 years ago…
SR: ...and now it’s everywhere!
SWS: Is there a particular type of olive that you like to use in this dish?
SR: Olives are one of those things where if I buy them they’ll just sit in the fridge for a while. So I just go to the olive bar at the supermarket and pick out whatever looks the best and get enough for the recipe. There’s no one specific olive I like to use for this, just whatever looks good.
SWS: Advice for first-time makers?
SR: I would say to take your time browning the chicken and use high heat. Don’t try and take the chicken off before it’s done, or it’ll stick to the pan. Let it do its thing, get a nice brown crust. That’s going to maximize the flavor. I think a lot of home cooks are a little wary of getting the pan too hot. That’s something I learned in culinary school: I’d never turned on my stove that high before. That browning step is what’s going to add to a lot of the flavor in the dish, so take your time.
SWS: Does your knowledge of biology and medicine influence your cooking?
SR: It definitely came in handy when we were learning how to take apart a chicken or filet fish in cooking school!
SWS: When you say healthy, do you have a specific definition in mind?
SR: There isn’t one definition. I’m not a vegetarian but I try and incorporate as many vegetables, fruits, and whole grains as possible, and try to limit processed foods. I’m a big advocate of cooking at home. It’s so easy to buy food out, but cooking makes it easy to follow a nutritious diet, because then you know exactly what you’re putting into your food and your body.
- 4 tablespoons canola oil
- 2 1/2 pounds chicken legs and thighs
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt, or more to taste
- 1 pinch Black pepper, or more to taste
- 1 1/2 cups small diced onion
- 1 teaspoon minced ginger
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 cups chicken stock, more as needed
- 1/4 teaspoon saffron
- 1/2 cup green olives, rinsed
- 2 preserved lemons, pulp removed; rind cut into strips
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro