This Scottish chicken soup is its own kind of medicine

Usually, I
would brew a pot of Jewish penicillin at the first sign of a scratchy throat.
Full of garlic, celery, carrots and noodles simmered until so soft and slippery
that chewing is hardly required; it’s pure childhood comfort for me. It has seen
my family through countless sniffles and bouts of bronchitis. Whenever I feel
rotten, no other soup will do.

But without
the bodily need for that exact brand of brothy medicine, I have been branching
out. And one of my favourite new-to-me chicken soup variations is Scottish

A recipe
dating to at least the 16th century, it’s considered the national soup of
Scotland, ladled up for St Andrew’s Day, Hogmanay and Burns Night.

The most
minimalist recipes call for a rich chicken broth thickly strewn with slices of
leek and chunks of the stewed bird, without so much as a parsley sprig or
carrot slice decorating the bowl. More elaborate incarnations include beef
broth or meat, rice or oatmeal, and — a typically medieval addition — prunes or

Writing in
the early 19th century, under the pen name Margaret Dods, Christian Isobel
Johnstone has a cock-a-leekie recipe in “The Cook and Housewife’s Manual” that
includes capon, beef shin, optional oatmeal and plenty of leeks, “boiled down
into the soup till it becomes a green lubricious compound.”

But she
skips the dried fruit, calling it obsolete.

In my
version, I have kept the diced prunes, which add a lovely sweetness, but nixed
the beef, which seems like overkill when you have already got a chicken in the

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And in lieu
of rice or oatmeal, I opted for the barley suggested by Felicity Cloake in her
recipe in The Guardian, which she prefers for its chewy texture and nutty

from tradition, however, I also stirred in garlic, celery and carrots. It
nudged the broth ever so slightly closer to my beloved Jewish penicillin, but
without obscuring the leeks, chicken and prunes. Warming, hearty and very
satisfying, it is sure to cure whatever ails you, be it of body, or of mind.

Cock-a-Leekie Soup (Scottish Chicken and Leek Soup)

By Melissa

Yield: 4 to
6 servings

Total time:
2 1/2 hours


3 1/2 pounds
bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and drumsticks

3 teaspoons
kosher salt (Diamond Crystal), plus more as needed

1/2 teaspoon
freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed

4 large
leeks, cleaned, separate greens and whites

3 medium
carrots, peeled (reserve peels), cut into 1/4-inch-thick coins

2 celery
stalks, thinly sliced (reserve any leaves)

1 head
garlic, halved crosswise

1 bunch
parsley, stems and leaves separated

3 to 5 fresh
thyme sprigs

1 fresh or
dried bay leaf

1 star anise
or clove

1 teaspoon
whole black peppercorns

tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup
pearl barley

1/2 cup
chopped pitted prunes


1. Season
chicken with 2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Set chicken aside
while prepping the other ingredients.

2. Put leek
greens, carrot peels, celery leaves, garlic, parsley stems, thyme, bay leaf and
star anise at bottom of a large Dutch oven or soup pot. Place chicken on top of
the vegetables. Add remaining 1 teaspoon salt and the peppercorns, and pour in
8 cups cold water, or enough to just submerge the chicken.

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3. Bring to
a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to a simmer and partly cover the pot.
Cook until chicken is cooked through and very tender, 45 to 55 minutes.

4. While the
chicken cooks, thickly slice 3 of the leek whites into 1/2-inch coins. Thinly
slice the remaining leek white; set thinly and thickly sliced leeks aside

5. When the
chicken is tender, using tongs, transfer to a large bowl or plate to cool.
Strain the broth into a large bowl, discarding vegetables and herbs

6. Wipe out
the Dutch oven and return it to medium-high heat. Add butter, letting it melt.
Add the thick leek coins (save the thinly sliced leek for garnish), a pinch of
salt and pepper, and sauté until tender and golden brown, about 5 minutes.
Transfer leek whites to a bowl (they can go on top of the chicken if there’s

7. Pour
broth back into the pot. Bring broth to a brisk simmer, and stir in barley,
carrots and celery. Let broth simmer uncovered until the liquid is reduced by a
third, and the barley and vegetables are tender, 40 to 50 minutes.

8. While the
broth is simmering, use a fork or your fingers to shred chicken into bite-size
pieces, discarding skin and bones.

9. Once the
barley and vegetables are tender, stir in shredded chicken, sautéed leek whites
and the prunes, and simmer for another 5 minutes to allow the prunes to soften
(some might disintegrate). Taste and add salt, if needed. To serve, garnish
with thinly sliced leek whites and parsley leaves.

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© 2022 The
New York Times Company

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