This Scottish chicken soup is its own kind of medicine The Denver Post

By Melissa Clark, The New York Times

A rare upside to living in a pandemic has been that, thanks to all the mask-wearing and distancing, I’ve managed to avoid my usual onslaught of winter colds. This has radically altered my chicken soup habits.

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 favorite new-to-me chicken soup variations is Scottish cock-a-leekie.

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 raisins.

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 pot.

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 flavor.

Breaking 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.

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

By Melissa Clark

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
  • 2 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.

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 separately.

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 room).

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.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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