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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cock-a-Leekie Soup

A few weeks ago, I wanted to try my hand at some sort of traditional Scottish dish. I had reason to observe and celebrate Scottish heritage that day, and what better way to salute the Scots than in the kitchen.

Combing the internet for recipes that would not a) be incredibly difficult or time-consuming, and b) make my insides scream and lash out in abject protest (haggis, I’m looking at you), I came across several interesting dishes, but none of them spoke to me quite like Cock-a-Leekie soup.

It’s Autumn. I’ve pulled out my winter coat and came very close to wearing it today, as the air has a bite to it and the breeze here in Seattle is quite nippy. Well. If ever a people knew how to make it through the cold winter months, it’s the Scots. And if ever there was a dish to chase away the chill, it’s Cock-A-Leekie soup. Also, it’s fun to say. When your friends, family, or roommates ask what smells so wonderful simmering on the stove, you can reply with enthusiasm, “Cock-a-Leekie soup!” then watch as their faces transform into utter confusion.

This recipe has a quaint and ancient history. Evidently, when the widowed Mary Queen of Scots left France to claim the Scottish throne in 1561, she brought her cooks along with her. One of the dishes the Queen’s kitchen created was Coq au Leek. Over time and transformation with Scottish dialect, Coq au Leek became Cock-a-Leekie. (Coq au Vin is another traditional French soup. It means “rooster in wine” in French.) Most self-respecting Scots serve Cock-a-Leekie as an intro dish for Burns Night.

Onto the bigger conundrum: What, exactly, is Cock-a-Leekie soup? Cock-a-leekie soup is a Scottish soup dish! It’s made primarily of leeks, chicken, and chicken stock. The original 16th-century recipe added prunes during cooking, and traditionalists still garnish with a julienne of prunes. It’s been suggested that the reason for adding the prunes dates back to times when only boiling fowls were available and prunes were added to increase the nutritional value of the broth.

Amazingly, so few ingredients (chicken, leeks and prunes) can result in such a flavorful soup. I’ll admit I was hesitant to add the prunes, but wanting to stick to a traditional recipe, I added them in. And I was not disappointed.

I cobbled together a recipe based on all the other recipes I looked at. I knew I wanted to start with a roux for the base, and add some milk to make it a creamier stock. (Oh, oops. Roux is totally a French thing. Sorry Scotland. Hey, the Industrial Revolution was a good thing for you guys, wasn’t it? Quit yer whinin’.) I also knew I had some veggies in the fridge that needed to be used up, and because this was all new territory for me, the added celery and carrots gave it a traditional American feel that squelched my fears of the unknown. (Again. My apologies to Scotland. If Americanizing your dish gets your kilt in a twist, that’s your problem, not mine.)

I did not measure ingredients or pay much attention to amounts, so this recipe should be loosely interpreted. Sorry!

Cock-a-Leekie Soup

1. Melt about a tablespoon of butter in a pan. Slice up one leek and add it to the butter, stirring until soft.

2. For the roux, melt about 6 Tbsp butter over medium heat, then stir in 6 Tbsp flour (roux should always be a 1:1 ratio). Stir it all up until it gets all brown and bubbly. Mmmm.

3. Next, add in some cream or whole milk. I didn’t have either in the fridge, so I used 1%. I don’t necessarily recommend that, but it is what it is. Pour in about a 1 ½ cups, give or take. Stir that all together until it thickens up.

4. Add 32 oz of chicken broth and stir well.

5. Add the softened leeks.

6. Cut up two boneless, skinless chicken breasts into bite-sized pieces and throw them in the pot.

7. Cut up 2 celery stalks and one medium-sized carrot and add it to the broth mixture.

8. Now boil the heck outta that mess, making sure you stir it around a lot.

9. When the chicken is cooked through and the veggies are soft, ladle it into a bowl.

10. Slice up 1-2 prunes into bit-sized chunks and add it to the soup.

11. Get a fuzzy blanket. Bonus points if it's plaid.

12. Wrap yourself up in it, and eat your soup.

13. Praise Scotland.

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