Can you have too many leeks? I ask myself that question from time to time – usually when surveying the contents of my vegetable store. The answer is generally a resounding “no” as it is impossible to have too many leeks, at least in my winter kitchen. They are easy to grow (having done this in the past), keep well and are a fantastic cold weather vegetable. Some of my favourite ways of preparing leeks are a Spanish method sautéed and seasoned with sweet paprika and dried mint and thickened with yoghurt from one of the Moro cookbooks. Another is a Turkish recipe of leeks simmered and spiked with vinegar and lots of fresh herbs. Then there are French leek tarts made with lovely buttery homemade puff pastry. Or, simply the way my Scottish mother-in-law used to make them, poached with a cheddar cheese sauce. Really, the list could go on.
Well, leeks will certainly came in handy for Burns night – January 25th. They are one of the main ingredients in the traditional supper’s starter of cock-a-leekie soup, in the celebration of Scotland’s famous poet, Robert Burns. Luckily, Jane Grigson has a recipe in her book, Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, the book being trialed by the cookbook blogging club, The Cookbook Guru. She has numerous recipes for leeks – as one would expect from a fellow lover of leeks! One of her recipes is Flamiche aux Poireaux, a Flemish (really a Northern French) leek tart which I will need to try at some point in time, just not right now. I’ve realised that it is wise to spread out the making of anything with homemade puff pastry (my new obsession) so as not to overdose on the buttery, flaky crusts, an act that has a tendency to increase the waistline.
But, back to cock-a-leekie soup….In her vegetable book, Grigson gives it an alternative spelling – cockie-leekie. It is said to have originated as a chicken and onion soup from France, but by the 16th century, when it came to Scotland, the onions were replaced with leeks. A 16th century description of the soup mentions a rich broth with pieces of meat (beef) served to the servants and commoners at the lower tables (“below the salt”) while the upper classes at the high table were served a plate of fowl, leeks and prunes – a separation of the soup’s constituent parts. Through the centuries, the prunes seem to have become optional, the beef disappeared and barley or rice were added as thickeners. And, I’ve even seen a few modern recipes for cock-a-leekie that add cream! According to Wikipedia, however, it wasn’t until the 18th century that this soup acquired its specific name.
Jane Grigson’s Cockie-Leekie Soup
This recipe contains the ingredients described in the 16th century – beef, chicken (fowl), prunes, and (of course) many leeks. The prunes enrich the broth produced from boiling a tough older bird – a capon or boiling fowl. Also, the beef adds a depth of flavour to the stock, although (as Grigson suggests) the meat can be substituted with beef stock simply for the flavour. Finally, Grigson’s soup is not thickened with either rice or barley. This is an old-fashioned meat broth soup flavoured with prunes and leeks. As she also suggests, the broth can be served first followed by a dish of meat, leeks and prunes.
Serves 6 as a main meal, 10 to 12 as a starter
- 1 whole chicken, approximately 1.5 to 2 kg
- 3.5 litres beef stock
- salt and pepper
- 1.5 kg leeks, approximately 10 medium sized
- 300g prunes
- Parsley, optional
Clean the chicken and pat dry. Place this in a large stock pot.
Clean and trim the leeks, taking half of the leeks (approximately 5) and cut these in half. Tie the halved leeks into bundles (do not use blue string à la Bridgette Jones) and add these to the pot. Reserve the other half of the leeks for adding to the soup near the end of cooking.
Add the stock to the pot with a bit of salt and pepper if required. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat, cover and continue to simmer for about 2 hours.
Remove the bundle of leeks and discard. Carefully remove the chicken and set aside – it will be falling apart. Cut the breast meat off the bones and reserve. Pick the rest of the meat off and freeze for future use. Discard the skin and carcass.
Add the prunes and simmer for an additional 20 to 30 minutes. While the prunes are simmering, slice the remaining leeks into half moon shapes. Add these sliced leeks and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on how you like your leeks – slightly crunchy or softened.
Put portions of chicken into each bowl and ladle the broth with leeks and prunes on top. Alternatively, put the meat – cut into portions – back into the stock pot when you add the leeks and serve from there. If you would like, sprinkle each bowl of soup with chopped parsley.
I modified Grigson’s procedure and ingredient proportions slightly, first by substituting the beef for beef stock. This is an easier option which still provides the flavour. Also, the amount of chicken meat produced from a whole bird is quite a lot and I felt that only a proportion of it is need for a good meaty soup. I chose to use the breast meat and freeze the rest to make another chicken dish at some time in the future (two meals from one bird!).
Grigson added a huge amount of prunes (500g) which I have reduced in quantity to 300g – although it still seems to be a large amount! If you are not a prune lover, reduce the amount still further and if you really object to them, they can be discarded before you put in the leeks. Be warned, they do have a tendency to disintegrate. Apparently it was the 18th century French diplomat (and gourmand), Charles Maurice de Tallyrand’s opinion that the prunes should be cooked in the soup, but removed before serving – thus establishing the optional nature of prunes in many recipes for cock-a-leekie soup. They do add a depth of flavour to the soup, but the leek flavour is still predominant.
This makes a huge amount of soup. Grigson indicates that the bird be covered in the liquid rather than giving specific quantities. I measured and came up with 3.5 litres. It is a large quantity, which is fine if you have a large family or if you are making the soup as a starter for a Burns supper to which you have invited dozens of guests…. However, if you wish to provide a meal for an average family, simply reduce the amount of beef stock to 2 litres. Also, reduce the total amount of leeks to approximately 6 medium sized-ones and the amount of prunes to 150 to 200g. In place of the whole chicken, use 2 breasts (on bone) or 2 whole legs (a cut called a Maryland in Australia).
Like many soups and stews, the flavour always matures and melds when it is allowed to rest for at least 24 hours. Grigson indicates that the leeks should still be slightly crisp, but I don’t think this is necessary, nor is it to everyone’s taste. Letting the soup keep in the refrigerator overnight softens the leeks, but also mellows the flavour and, I believe, is an improvement. The added benefit is the soup can be made ahead of time – a labour saving device if you are cooking other things as well (such as haggis, tatties and neeps…).
- More info
Last, but not least, there is a fuller account of the history of the soup in Grigson’s other book, Good Things.
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Last Year’s Burn’s Night Recipe: Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin Race in the form of Vegetarian Haggis.