Small, Good Things: Auld Reekie, Cock-a-Leekie

By Joe Dizney

 “Oh Lord, we do not ask you to give us wealth. But show us where it is!”

         —Scottish prayer

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While I’d like to be able to attribute this week’s column to the result of advance planning in anticipation of (Robbie) Burns Night on Jan. 25, I must admit once again that it is the result of generous gift, in this case a large bunch of leeks from my landlady/neighbor/friend, N.

Initially a bit flummoxed, I remembered a healthy flirtation with soups of all kinds and the discovery of Scotland’s “national soup,” Cock-a-Leekie (or Cockie Leekie), the humble but satisfying winter stew of chicken (cock) and leeks (leekie).

Much more approachable than the more traditional haggis, Cock-a-Leekie stems from the same thrifty culinary tendency to make the most of “lesser” ingredients. Leeks are, of course, one of the heartier garden vegetables and may be overwintered for use when not much else is available. (Another example is Nips and Tatties, a Burns Night staple of mashed turnips and potatoes.)

If you search online for recipes for Cock-a-Leekie, you will get concoctions dating back to the 16th century for a peppered, beef-based broth with leeks in which a fowl of questionable youthfulness is boiled for three to four hours, the resulting soup’s heartiness bolstered by the inclusion of pearled barley (or rice or potatoes) and curiously garnished with prunes and, in some cases, a generous splash of Scotch whisky. The latter prompts a name change to Auld Reekie, though it is suggested that appellation was really the result of the coal fires used for cooking.

Cock-a-Leekie Soup (Photo by J. Dizney)

However, boiling a chicken for three to four hours seems just plain wrong and the inclusion of beef equally unnecessary. Better and thriftier (to honor the Scottish intent) to cook the bird in a light, flavorful broth created from the tough but flavorful green parts of the leeks and a handful of other staples.

Rather than boil a bird, I modeled a technique from a recipe for Chinese boiled white chicken I came across in Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street magazine. (Full disclosure: I was a designer for the charter issue.)

As decidedly unlovely as the name sounds, in practice the bird is gently poached in a simple vegetable broth, cooled a bit, then skinned, deboned and cut into chunks, providing both meat of a lovely, velvety texture and a rich, strained broth.

And so, while not completely by-the-book or historically accurate, this two-part process will, with the addition of my preferred “tatties” and prunes (which add a subtle sweetness and richness), result in a satisfying one-pot winter meal. It begs for naught but a slice of buttered toast for complete enjoyment, Burns Night or not.

Cock-A-Leekie Soup

For the chicken and broth

6 to 12 leeks (depending on size), healthy dark and medium parts, cut into 1-inch pieces, rinsed clean and drained (reserve light green and white parts for the soup below)
2 peeled carrots, coarsely chopped
2 ribs celery coarsely chopped
Bouquet garni of 1 tablespoon thyme, 10-12 black peppercorns and 3 bay leaves, crushed
1 bunch parsley
4½ quarts water
3½- to 4-pound chicken (exclude giblets)
3 tablespoons kosher salt

For the soup

¼-pound chunk of smoky bacon cut into ¼-inch chunks
Light green and white parts of leeks (from above) cut into ½-inch pieces, rinsed clean and drained
2 peeled carrots chopped into ¼- to ½-inch dice
2 ribs celery, sliced into ¼-inch bias-cut slices
2½ quarts strained stock from above
6 to 8 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into roughly 1 inch chunks
6 oz. pitted prunes (about 30), halved
Chopped parsley for garnish

For the chicken and broth

  1. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature while making the broth. Reserving half the parsley for garnish, tie the other half into a bundle. In a large pot (at least 8 quarts), heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium high heat and sauté dark/medium green leeks, carrots and celery. Add water, bouquet garni and parsley bundle; bring to a boil.
  2. With tongs, lower the chicken into the broth, breast side up, letting the liquid flow into the cavity, making sure it is fully submerged and the cavity fully flooded.
  3. Return broth to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low, adjusting as necessary to maintain a light simmer. (Weight chicken down with a plate if necessary to keep it fully submerged.) After 25 minutes, with your tongs flip the chicken breast side down and simmer for another 15 minutes. Turn off heat, remove pot from burner and let chicken sit in broth off heat for 30 minutes. Transfer chicken to a bowl and let it cool. Strain broth and set aside. (Note: You will be the beneficiary of extra broth to freeze for use in any other recipe calling for a flavor boost.)

For the soup

  1. In the same large pot, heat the olive oil and briefly fry the bacon chunks. Add half of the reserved light green/white leeks, carrots and celery and sauté for 4 to 5 minutes. Add the stock and bring to a light simmer for 15 minutes.
  2. While the soup broth simmers, remove the skin from the cooled chicken; remove meat, cutting the larger pieces into bite-size chunks. Add the chicken back to the soup along with the potatoes, prunes and remaining leeks and return to a simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Adjust seasoning and serve hot with a fresh grinding of black pepper and a little chopped parsley.