Making Cock-A-Leekie Soup

How I made a pot of soup with chicken and leeks and the teaching spirits of Robin Wall Kimmerer and Madame Skinner 

Still Life with Leeks, Cheese and Apples, by Carl Schuch, public domain

I made a pot of cock-a-leekie soup. It’s a traditional Scottish soup with chicken and leeks. 

I found the recipe in Laura Kumin’a new book, All Stirred Up: Suffrage Cookbooks, Food, and the Battle for Women’s Right To Vote. (I wrote about it here.)

I like thumbing through recipes that come with stories. Kumin’s book is especially compelling, with verbatim recipes from old-timey cookbooks, updated versions for modern tastes, and tons of appetizing tidbits–juicy and historical–about American suffragists.

Here is a recipe for from a 1916 suffrage cookbook*: 


COCK-A-LEEKIE SOUP
 Materials
 1 large fowl 
 2 or 3 bunches of leeks
 Stock, 3 qts, made from white meat and seasoned while making with carrots, celery, mace, herbs and peppercorns. 

Method: Place fowl in the stock with the leeks and simmer slowly for 3 hrs. Skim and season with salt. To serve, carve carefully the white and tenderer portions of the fowl into small portions, place these in the soup tureen and over them pour the soup. 

Note: This recipe is a great favorite in Scotland and is used on festive occasions, especially on Burns’ celebration feasts.

This is my kind of recipe: a fun name, a short list of ingredients, and a short list of instructions. 

I read on and decided Kumin’s version of the recipe–amped up for flavor and ease–was worth trying:

COCK-A-LEEKIE SOUP - ADAPTED
Ingredients:
- About 3 medium-large leeks, well-washed with root ends and tough outer leaves removed
- About 3 ½ pounds (1 ½ kilos) chicken, either quartered or cut into several pieces (include giblets if there are any)
- 8 cups/2 quarts (64 fl oz/1 9/10 liters) chick broth (homemade or store-bought)
- 2-3 celery stalks, with leaves, cut in half
- 2 bay leaves
- ½ cup (3 ½ oz/100 g) pearl barley
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and cut crosswise into ¼-inch slices
- 2 oz/57 g dried pitted prunes, halved (about 12 prunes)
- Worcestershire sauce, for serving (optional)
- Minced fresh parsley, for serving (optional)

Leeks have been on my mind from a recent reading of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “The Honorable Harvest,” a chapter in her stunning collection Braiding Sweetgrass. 

Kimmerer is a mother, plant ecologist, writer and professor of environmental science and forestry at SUNY.  She’s also an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. 

It is taking me a long time to read Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer is a science writer touched by magic realism. Her stories are teachings of science and the soul, working both sides of my brain.  

That’s probably why she ended up in the kitchen with me when I was making the pot of soup. Not literally, of course, but in my head. She just showed up, like a kitchen spirit, or the cadence of faraway drums. 

From Kimmerer, I’m learning about the Honorable Harvest, an approach practiced by native peoples for being accountable to both the physical and metaphysical worlds. It includes tenets like: Don’t take the first. Don’t take the last. Take only what you need. Don’t take more than half. Ask permission. It’s basic manners, only for the earth, not just people.

Leeks play a major part in Kimmerer’s teachings about the Honorable Harvest. She tells a story of going out to gather leeks in a meadow in the early spring. Her first attempt was denied. The leeks were “ragged, papery sheaths where the bulbs should be.”  The leeks did not give permission to be taken at that time.  

She returned to the meadow a few weeks later: “This time, when I push my trowel deep I come up with a thick cluster of gleaming white bulbs, plump, slippery, and aromatic.  I hear yes, so I make a gift from the soft old tobacco pouch in my pocket and begin to dig.”

“This time, when I push my trowel deep I come up with a thick cluster of gleaming white bulbs, plump, slippery, and aromatic.  I hear yes, so I make a gift from the soft old tobacco pouch in my pocket and begin to dig.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, “The Honorable Harvest”

The soup recipe calls for leeks “well-washed,” and instructs: “Cut the leeks’ green parts in half vertically and rinse well to remove any grit.”

I am grateful for the detailed instructions.  As I cut the greens, I notice a good amount of dirt between the layers. 

Except for a few tomatoes and jalapenos, and some occasional crops of peas and kale, I don’t grow my food; I buy it. 

Everything I buy is highly sanitized by the time it gets to my kitchen. Even fresh produce. Carrots, celery, mushrooms–they all come with a little bit of dirt. But not like these leeks.

I live far removed from the Honorable Harvest.


 Preparation
 1. Cut the leeks’ green parts in half vertically and rinse well to remove any grit.  Cut the white parts away, then cut them crosswise into thin slices. Toss in a bowl with cool water and let sit for a few minutes so any grit falls away. 

I like slicing leek bulbs. They have a papery quality, just like Kimmerer describes. Leek layers are thinner and finer than onion layers. They look lovely floating in my glass bowl of water.


2. Put the leeks’ greens, chicken, broth, celery, and bay leaves in a large pot. Cover and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and cook for 1 hour. Discard the leeks’ greens, celery, and bay leaves.

“Leeks’ greens.” I note Kumin’s precise punctuation here; but I don’t appreciate it. 

I can’t read the words “Leeks’ greens” without stumbling on it. 

I think of Mrs. Skinner, my junior high English and French teacher. She would confirm that “leeks’ greens” is the correct usage of plural possessive.  But it doesn’t sound right. 

One doesn’t say “celery’s greens;” or “turnips’ greens.” 

Wouldn’t the recipe read easier if it simply said “leek greens?” 

Some people write in their cookbooks to make notes about ingredients or measurements. I make punctuation marks in my cookbooks. 


3. Remove the chicken from the stock, let it cool, and when cool enough to handle, cut the meat off the bone. Discard the bones and skin. Either shred the meat or cut it into small pieces. You will have about 18 oz/520 g of meat. Set aside. 

I used boneless, skinless chicken breasts for the broth. I am far, far removed from the harvest.

“I am stopped in my tracks in the produce section.  There on a Styrofoam tray, sheathed in plastic and tagged at the princely sum of $15.50 per pound, are Wild Leeks.  The plastic presses down on them: they look trapped and suffocated. Alarm bells go off in my head, alarms of commoditization of what should be regarded as a gift and all the dangers that follow from that kind of thinking. Selling leeks makes them into mere objects and cheapens them, even at $15.50 per pound. Wild things should not be for sale.”

–Robin Wall Kimmer, “The Honorable Harvest

My husband is a good cook and is particularly talented with chicken. He usually starts with a whole chicken–bones, skins, and all–and easily turns it into a gourmet roast, grilled, or poached entree. 

I have to ask for his help to cut a whole chicken into pieces. It’s yet another skill for me to learn in retirement. 


4. Add the leeks’ sliced white parts, barley, salt, and allspice to the broth. Cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes, until the barley is fully cooked, and the leeks are so soft they almost melt.

There’s no barley in my pantry. I decided Orzo would do, even with it’s long-past expiration date.  

“The leeks are so soft they almost melt.” What a divine line for a recipe. It’s true, the leeks seem to melt like buttery rings on the spoon. 

I am taken back to middle school French class. Madame Skinner has arranged for our small group of etudiants to use the Home Ec kitchen to make French Onion Soup.

We break into groups, chopping onions and measuring at our work stations under Madame’s instructions. 

The boys handle the knives with simultaneous awkwardness and confidence. 

Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Pot and Soup Tureen

As the onions cook down, we know the other classrooms can smell our cooking. The recipe called for lots of black pepper and thyme–spices incongruous with the cold institutional halls of the old school building. 


5. Just before serving, add back in the shredded or cut-up chicken pieces, along with the sliced carrots, and the prunes. Bring the broth back to a simmer, until everything is warmed through and the prunes are soft.

People giggle at prunes as old people’s food. Not me. I associate prunes with exotic locales like Arabia or Russia. I picture them served on a gold platter with figs, nuts, and sesame sweets, passed around a harem tent between hookahs. Or in a hearty, festive stew served by a Babushka on Christmas in the caucuses. 


6. If desired, add Worcestershire sauce and minced parsley.

I did not take this last step. I left the Worcestershire sauce and parsley for another day. 

I used only what I needed, to make a perfectly delicious cock-a-leeky soup.


*All recipe references are excerpts from All Stirred Up, Laura Kumin, p. 97-99)

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