Eric Akis: Cock-a-leekie for the Bard

Eric Akis

Robbie Burns Day is Friday and suppers will be held around the world to celebrate this Scottish Bard who died in 1796. His poems will be read, toasts will be made and foods such as haggis will be served as a main dish.

If it’s a multi-course meal, a soup might also be ladled up. One I’ve seen on many Robbie Burns Day menus is cock-a-leekie, which some refer to as Scotland’s national soup.

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According to the Oxford Companion to Food, the term “cock-a-leekie” came into use in the 18th century, when Burns was still living. It reflects the soup’s key ingredients, chicken and leeks, and in days of yore the former may have been a rooster, also known as a cock.

The book notes that it’s believed this style of dish dates back to medieval times. In that era, in places such as France, instead of leeks, it contained onions and prunes, and was probably served as two dishes — the chicken and the broth the bird was cooked in.

In Scotland, leeks were a good choice to replace onions in the soup because varieties of this vegetable are hearty and well suited for growing in dreary Scottish weather, particularly in winter months. Leeks also gave the soup a greater depth of flavour, as a leek is like three vegetables in one. It looks like a giant scallion, is related to both garlic and onion, and has a mild and appealing flavour with hints of all three.

With regard to the prunes, if you research recipes for cock-a-leekie soup you’ll find they’re still added to some of them, but not all.

The decision to leave them out of some recipes may have been influenced by French statesman and gastronome Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. In the late 18th century, he apparently opined that it was fine that prunes be cooked in the soup, but suggested that they be removed before serving it.

I’m guessing he may have noted that, when the prunes were simmered a long time in the soup, and their taste was cooked right out of them, they became mushy and flavourless. The prunes added a nice flavour to the broth, but, at that point, were not something you would want to eat.

It seems some took that to mean they could be excluded entirely from the soup. One prominent person suggesting that was Christian Isobel Johnstone, a prolific Scottish journalist and author who in the nineteenth century wrote anonymously under the pseudonym Margaret Dods.

In her book The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, first published in 1826, she provides a method for making cock-a-leekie and at the end of it writes: “Prunes wont to be put to this soup. The practice is obsolete.”

But, obviously, not everyone agreed with her because today, online and in books, there is no shortage of cock-a-leekie soup recipes, some labelled “traditional,” where prunes are still added. Doing so adds a unique, almost exotic taste that purists say cock-a-leekie must have.

But you’ll notice in some recipes for cock-a-leekie that the prunes are not simmered in the soup. Instead, to ensure they don’t become overly soft, or infuse the soup with too much of a sweet taste, the tender, pitted prunes are sliced and added at the end of cooking, or directly to the soup bowl as a garnish.

Beyond adding or not adding prunes, you’ll find myriad other variations on how the soup is made. And this evolution in preparation is not surprising, given how long cockie-a-leekie soup has been simmered.

For example, you’ll find recipes in the style that was likely served when Burns was still penning his poetry, made with chicken and leeks and not much else. Others are made that way, but are also enriched with such things as rice, barley or oatmeal. Some recipes still simmer a whole chicken in the pot, while other, quicker-cooking versions call for pieces of the bird. And, beyond leeks, some recipes also include other vegetables, such as carrots, and along with the chicken, other meat, such as bacon.

My version of cock-a-leekie is a hybrid of some of the ways I found the soup to be made. It’s comforting and hearty and can be served as a main course with some dense bread, biscuits or oatcakes, and, if you must, a glass of Scotch whisky to toast Robbie Burns.

Cock-a-leekie Soup

This version of the classic Scottish-style soup is rich with shreds of tender chicken, slices of leek, sustaining barley and bits of sliced, tender prunes.

Preparation time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: about 90 minutes

Makes: three or four servings

7 1/2 cups homemade or low or no sodium store-bought chicken broth

2 large chicken legs (each about 300 grams)

3 cups fairly thinly sliced leeks (divided; see Note)

1 small to medium carrot, peeled and sliced

1 bay leaf

2 sprigs fresh thyme, of pinch or two of dried thyme

12 whole black peppercorns

1/3 cup pearl barley

1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley, or to taste

4 soft, pitted prunes, cut into thin strips

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place chicken in a tall, fairly narrow pot (mine was 8-inches wide). Pour in the broth. Set pot over medium-high heat and bring to a gentle simmer. (Small bubbles should just break on the surface. Do not rapidly boil chicken or you’ll end up with cloudy broth.)

Lower heat as needed to maintain that gentle simmer. Simmer chicken, uncovered, 10 minutes. Skim off any foam that has risen to the surface of the pot. Now add half of the sliced leeks to the pot, along with the carrot, bay leaf, thyme and peppercorns.

Return the broth to a gentle simmer and cook chicken legs 45 to 50 minutes, until cooked through and the meat is almost falling off the bone.

Remove pot from the heat. Use a slotted spoon to lift the chicken legs out of the pot and onto a plate. Cool chicken legs to room temperature. Strain the chicken broth into another pot. You should have at least six cups. If you don’t, top it up with some more broth or with water until you do. Discard the items you strained out of the broth.

When chicken legs have cooled, remove and discard the skin. Now remove the chicken meat from the bones and pull it into soup-spoon-sized pieces (see Eric’s options).

Let broth settle a few minutes, and then skim excess fat from the surface of it. Add the shredded chicken to pot, along with the remaining sliced leeks and the barley.

Bring this cock-a-leekie soup to a simmer over medium-high heat. Lower the heat as needed to maintain that gentle simmer. Simmer soup 20 minutes, until the barley and leeks are tender. Mix in the parsley and prunes. Taste the soup, and season with salt and ground black pepper, as needed. Ladle soup into bowls and enjoy.

Note: About 300 grams of leeks should yield the amount needed here. That should equate to one large, or two small to medium leeks. I used the latter because they’re more tender. Before slicing the leeks, wash them well, and then trim off a bit of the root end. Also trim off the more fibrous, darkest green top portion off each leek.

Eric’s options: You can simmer the chicken legs, and strain the broth they’re cooked in, a day before serving this soup. If you do, once you’ve removed the cooked chicken meat from the legs and pulled it into shreds, and the strained broth has cooled, cover and refrigerate both until ready to combine the two and simmer the soup with the other ingredients.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Times Colonist Wednesday and Sunday.

eakis@timescolonist.com

 

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