Cock-a-leekie, cock-a-leekie, cock-a-leekie: it’s too much fun to say! Have you ever had cock-a-leekie soup? It’s a traditional Scottish soup, made of chicken stock, leeks and little else (except prunes. Ew.). Despite many business trips to Edinburgh in my past, and the fact that I am of Scottish descent (my maternal grandfather emigrated from Glasgow), I’ve never had it. If I had ever seen it on a restaurant menu, I probably would have ordered it (despite the prunes; ew), just so I could say “cock-a-leekie” a few times in a bad Scottish brogue. ‘Cause I’m cool like that.
Back in the ’90’s, there was a time when I went to Scotland quite frequently. In fact, I used to do a 4-day run from Boston to Heathrow to Leeds to Harrogate to Edinburgh to Heathrow and back home to Boston. There were labs in both Harrogate and Edinburgh conducting studies for my company; I would fly over to inspect critical phases, review data or procedures, and generally be wined & dined by my study directors. But since I am the pickiest-food-blogger-on-the-planet, and since the Scots really do eat every part of the animal (pretty sure nose-to-tail was invented in Scotland), I told them that I was a vegetarian (which was a lot easier than explaining that I ate chicken and pork, but not beef, or seafood, or game meats, or organ meats, or tripe, or for the love of all that’s holy, haggis.). Nigel and Stuart, my long-suffering study directors, hated it. Usually when a client came to visit, they would get steak or prime rib or lobster: something fancy for lunch. When I came? Mushroom casserole. Every time. (Did I mention that I’m not a mushroom fan? Sigh.)
So, cock-a-leekie soup. (Cock-a-leekie. Cock-a-leekie. Cock-a-leekie. Go on: it’s fun.) I don’t know why it popped into my head. I called for some ideas for using up the rest of the dancing chicken meat, since Tai was out of town and I wouldn’t be able to polish it off by myself. I got lots of good ideas, but in typical fashion, I ignored them all and out of the blue Googled “cock a leekie soup.” I wasn’t even sure what was in it: I mean, I thought it had leeks. But who knows? Maybe “leekie” was wacky Scottish slang for goat eyeballs. (We won’t even go into what “cock” could mean.). But no: Mr. Google informed me that cock-a-leekie soup is actually made of chicken and leeks. Chicken and leeks that happened to be sitting in my fridge, whispering cock-a-leekie, cock-a-leekie, cock-a-leekie every time I opened the door.
Mr. Google also informed me that, like every other simple, traditional dish, each cook has their own version of cock-a-leekie soup. Some are very basic, with just stock, coarsely chopped leeks, a bit of chicken and prunes. (Yes, I know they are simply dried plums. And that they have a branding problem. But prunes in soup? Ew.) Some are distinctly chefy, with roasted chicken, fresh vegetables and clarified chicken stock. Some include rice or barley or even streaky bacon(!), and yet others are basically a hearty chicken stew with prunes. (Ew.) Suffice it to say, there are as many versions of cock-a-leekie as there are chefs who enjoy saying “cock-a-leekie.” I felt no compunction then in making my own cocked-up version: traditional Scottish soup by way of Morocco.
With leeks sautéed in butter, simmered with Basmati rice and homemade stock, then finished with chicken, preserved lemon and Aleppo pepper, this would hardly be considered traditional Scottish fare. (Besides – no prunes!) But it should be considered lovely. The preserved lemon imparts a bright, funky, salty flavor to the broth, the Aleppo pepper gives it just the right hint of exotic spice, and the whole thing is surprisingly delicious for what is basically boiled leeks and a bit of leftover chicken. Frugal, unfussy and surprisingly delicious: perhaps it is Scottish, after all.
Adapted from Cock-a-Leekie Soup, a Traditional Scottish Recipe from Rampant Scotland
- 3 large leeks (about 1 lb), trimmed, sliced in half lengthwise and washed well, then thinly sliced crosswise, white & green parts divided
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 quart chicken stock, homemade
- 1 quart water
- 2 oz (a scant 1/3 cup) white rice
- about 1/2 lb cooked chicken meat, slivered
- 1/2 of a preserved lemon, pulp scraped off and peel minced
- 1/2 tsp Aleppo pepper
- salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- large handful of fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
- In a medium (5 quart) Dutch oven or soup pot, heat the butter over medium-high heat until foam subsides. Add leeks, white parts only, stir and reduce heat to low. Sauté until lightly softened, about 5 minutes. Add rice, raise heat to medium and stirring, cook for 1 minute. Add stock, water and green parts of the leeks. Bring to a boil, then cover, reduce heat to low and simmer until rice is tender, about 15 minutes.
- Add chicken, preserved lemon and Aleppo pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until chicken is warmed through and flavors have had time to blend, about 15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding salt and pepper if needed (if you can get to it, the funky salt at the bottom of the lemon jar is excellent here). Serve hot, liberally garnished with fresh parsley and, if you like, additional Aleppo pepper.
- Traditional cock-a-leekie soup recipes vary, somewhat wildly, but the key ingredients appear to be chicken stock, leeks and prunes. Some recipes add onion, celery, carrots; others call for bay leaf or bouquet garni; some call for barley instead or rice, or no grain at all; yet others mention streaky bacon and sliced beef. Clearly, as long as you’ve got leeks & chicken, go ye forth and cock-a-leekie.
- I used half chicken stock and half water as I wanted a lighter flavor, to allow the lemon to shine through, and my homemade stock tends to be fairly robust. You could certainly use 2 quarts of chicken stock instead. Just don’t bother using store-bought stock: the soup is basically leeks boiled in stock. You won’t get a decent soup out of commercial stock.
- You can of course, start from scratch, instead of using frozen stock & roasted chicken: simmer a cock (is it bad that I can’t say that without snorting?) for an hour or two; then remove the chicken, strip the meat and return the bones to the stock pot to simmer for a few more hours for a deep, rich stock. Proceed as above, lightening the stock with water if you desire.
- Don’t skip the fresh parsley: it really finishes the dish and I think it is vital to the overall flavor.
Refrigerated for up to 5 days. Frozen for up to 6 months.
Fall through Spring.