Recipe: Quasi-cock-a-leekie soup

Delicious fresh vegetables (and fungi). Note how the leeks are cut lengthwise; subsequently cutting them into thin rounds will give you nice, even shreds of leek in the soup.
Delicious fresh vegetables (and fungi). Note how the leeks are cut lengthwise; subsequently cutting them into thin rounds will give you nice, even shreds of leek in the soup.

Since it’s less than a week before Thanksgiving, I found myself remembering the fun times I’ve had in the past this time of year. With the exception of one year (when my paternal grandparents lived across the street and my Dad’s brothers and their kids came to visit), I’ve never had a traditional Thanksgiving in the “gathering the whole clan for a big turkey dinner” sense. When I was really young, my immediate family would take off for Moab and go hiking during the long weekend, getting dinner with family friends at a grillhouse on the big day. After my brothers and I got into cross-country skiing, we headed up to West Yellowstone for the Rendezvous and Super Tour races, and Thanksgiving dinner was a gigantic potluck organizing by our ski club. My first two Thanksgivings at Dartmouth, I was pretty much alone in the dorms for the break time, but my freshman year roommate, Ellen, invited me to her house for the holiday dinner (along with some other stray students that her parents invited; they’re both economics professors). The last two Thanksgivings, I went to stay with my friend Quinn in the Boston area, along with some other friends from Salt Lake City. We cooked up a mixture of traditional-ish dishes, mostly from A Feast of Ice and Fire because we’re all huge nerds, and spent the rest of the time playing video games and board games  and walking around Medford and Cambridge.

Stirring the chicken into the base of leeks, celery, ginger, and wine.
Stirring the chicken into the base of leeks, celery, ginger, and white wine.

One of the foods that got rave reviews at both of these last gatherings was based on the description: “The wedding feast began with a thin leek soup…” from A Storm of Swords (for those familiar with the books, it’s the wedding you were probably the most upset about). Not much to go on, but the food-wizards behind Inn at the Crossroads came up with several awesome leek soup recipes to go with it. For a light pre-turkey course at Thanksgiving, I made the medieval version, a brothy, spicy soup with some roundness of taste (I don’t know how else to put it) from the mushrooms.

Simmering to cook the rice and draw out the essential oils in the lemon.
Simmering to cook the rice and draw out the essential oils in the lemon.

These days, I’m less excited about sides and more about one-pot meals, so I was looking to add some substance to this delicious soup while hopefully keeping its bright flavors intact. Adding chicken was an obvious choice, and as was spinach for extra vegetable goodness. I thought about throwing in potatoes, the classic soup pairing for leeks, but around that time, the words “cock-a-leekie soup” popped into my head. After a few moments’ thought, I recalled that my mother’s reaction to me telling her I made leek soup for Thanksgiving was, “Ooh, cock-a-leekie soup!” “No Mom, just leek and mushroom with ginger…”

As it turns out, cock-a-leekie soup is pretty close to what I was looking for: a traditional Scottish soup with chicken, leeks (surprise, surprise), rice or barley, thyme, and often prunes. I decided to combine the Inn at the Crossroads leek soup recipes with this one, adding brown rice for a bit of substance and spinach for extra nutrients, leaving out the prunes, and spicing the whole thing with lemon, ginger, lots of pepper, and a touch of cinnamon (to capture the use of powder fort, a medieval spice mix of black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and long pepper, in the medieval recipe).

The final simmer with added spinach.
The final simmer with added spinach.

Results: this was a bit more work than I was expecting, but definitely not too bad. It would be a great way to use up leftover roast chicken or turkey, and that would cut down on some of the preparation as well. It was totally worth the time, though. The soup turned out brothy but filling, with nice variation in texture and flavor between bites as I got pieces of chicken, mushroom, and celery along with my leeks. It’s not quite as gingery as I’d like, but that might be more because I’m fighting off a cold than due to any problem with the recipe. This one’s a keeper!

Finished with some chili flakes and freshly ground black pepper. Delicious!
Finished with some chili flakes and freshly ground black pepper. Delicious!

Quasi-Cock-a-Leekie Soup

Adapted from: Inn at the Crossroads and Rampant Scotland.

Yield: 8-10 servings.

2-3 Tbsp olive oil
4 leeks
~400 g chicken (I used 8 chicken breast mini-fillets)
2-3 stalks celery, diced
1 Tbsp fresh ginger, grated
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp cinnamon (optional)
1/4 c white wine
1 lemon
1.25 c brown rice
8 c chicken stock, diluted to taste (I did 4 c stock, 4 c water)
~2 c frozen spinach
400 g mushrooms, chopped (about 4 cups chopped)

Warm olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Cut ends and really tough parts of tops off leeks, cut lengthwise through to the center, and wash thoroughly, then chop into thin rounds (this method cleans out the dirt and lets the leeks come apart when cooking). Add leeks to pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, ~10 minutes. Add celery and continue cooking another 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop chicken into bite-sized or smaller pieces and saute in a bit of olive oil. (Alternatively, cut/shred leftover cooked chicken into bite-sized pieces.)

Add fresh and ground ginger and pepper to leeks and celery and cook, stirring, for a few minutes. Add cooked chicken, wine and juice of 1/2 lemon and continue cooking for a few minutes as the wine reduces. Lightly score the outside of the squeezed lemon rind to help it release its oils (alternatively, zest entire lemon). Add rice, chicken stock, and scored lemon half (or zest) and let simmer, covered, for 20-30 minutes, until rice is partially cooked but still chewy. Add frozen spinach and continue to cook, stirring to incorporate and speed up the thawing process. When the rice is almost cooked, add mushrooms and simmer until they are soft, another 5-10 minutes. Squeeze in juice from remaining 1/2 lemon, stir to incorporate, remove from heat, and season to taste.

Serving suggestions: Garnishes could include more black pepper, possibly grated Parmesan, chopped parsley or cilantro, and/or hot sauce. This is a meal on its own, but could be enhanced by a slice of crusty bread or a side salad.

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