Cuisine’s kindest course

by Sam Bilton on January 25, 2013 3 comments


Winter has truly arrived in the UK this week and with it has come the usual seasonal bouts of cold and flu to beleaguer my family and friends. It’s not much fun when your sinuses feel like they are filled with so much concrete that it hurts to lift your head off the pillow whilst at the same time your nose is gushing like a burst water main.

At times like these you need comfort food. Nothing fussy, just something simple and soothing like the culinary equivalent of a silky cashmere blanket. For me this solace comes from soup (although hot toddies are a close second). You’d be hard pushed to find anyone more passionate about soup than chef and Gourmet magazine co-founder Louis P de Gouy (you can read more about him here) who published a book on the subject in 1949. It’s full of wonderful quotes like:

“There is nothing like a plate or a bowl of hot soup, it’s wisp of aromatic steam making the nostrils quiver with anticipation, to dispel the depressing effects of a grueling day at the office or the shop, rain or snow in the streets, or bad news in the papers.”


“Soup is cuisine’s kindest course.  It breathes reassurance; it steams consolation; after a weary day it promotes sociability, as the five o’clock cup of tea or the cocktail hour.”

I’m generally not fussed what kind of soup I eat, whether I’m ill or in fine fettle, so long as it’s tasty. That said, chicken soup does seem to perk me up when I’m feeling under the weather. I’m not sure I buy into the theory that chicken soup has restorative properties but it certainly does the trick on a psychological level.

Which brings me on to Cock-a-Leekie, a simple chicken and leek broth hailing from Scotland. Jane Grigson calls it the “soup above soups” and the French diplomat and gourmand Talleyrand held the soup in high regard. The secret of this dish lies in its gentle cooking and using a good stock. Traditional recipes call for beef stock but I have used chicken stock in my version. Don’t be tempted to use stock cubes (I don’t care which celebrity chef they’re promoted by) or the end result will simply not be the same. You need to make your own stock or at the very worst buy some ready made stock. Whatever you decide make sure it’s full of flavour. I use a recipe similar to this one by Raymond Blanc (although the one I use makes a much larger quantity) but you can find recipes for chicken stock in most generic recipe books (except of course vegetarian ones!). The preparation of this soup is quite lengthy but fortunately it can be done is stages and the little actual labour is really required on your part. If you don’t want to include the dumplings (which are not traditional but do make more of a meal of this soup) then you can either add the breasts to the pot and serve them sliced in each bowl of soup or save them for another dish. If you want to make this dish super economical you could just use a two chicken leg portions but only so long as you have a decent stock (sorry to harp on about the stock thing but it really is vital in this recipe).

Of course, if you are suffering from the symptoms I described in the first paragraph you will most likely not feel like cooking anything at all. In these circumstances I suggest you delegate the task and let someone else brew the consolation for you.

Cock-a-Leekie Soup with Chicken Dumplings and Buttermilk Bread


Serves 4 – 6 as a fairly substantial lunch but should stretch to 8 as a starter 

For the soup:

  • 600g trimmed leeks
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 small chicken (around 1.5-2kg in weight), breasts and removed and the carcass reserved – a friendly butcher will happily do this for you
  • 1.2 litres good flavoured chicken stock
  • 12 ready to eat prunes (these are traditional but are not to everyone’s taste so I will leave it up to you as to whether or not your include them)
  • Chopped parsley to garnish

For the dumplings (Rachel Khoo’s recipe)

I make no excuses for using this recipe rather than one of my own. I could have taken the time to explain how to make classic quenelles involving a panada and godiveau but Rachel’s recipe is far less complicated. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it is my motto!

  • 200g chicken breast (from breasts above, any extra meat can be added to the pot)
  • 200g white bread (about 5 slices), crusts removed
  • 100ml single cream
  • 1 egg and 1 egg yolk
  • Grated nutmeg, salt and pepper to season

You can start this a day or two ahead of when you want to eat it.

  1. Chop half of the leeks. Heat the oil over a medium heat in a frying pan. Cook the chicken leg portions until they are golden all over. Remove from the pan then add the chopped leeks, reducing the heat slightly, and cook until soft.
  2. Place the fried leeks, chicken legs and and chicken carcass in a slow cooker. Bring the stock to the boil then pour this over the chicken and leeks. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours. Alternatively, cook in a low oven (around 120°C) in a large, lidded casserole for around 2-2½ hours or until the meat is falling off the chicken bones (ensure the contents of the casserole have come to the boil first before putting it in the oven).
  3. Remove chicken legs and carcass bones from the liqueur. Remove the meat from the bones, discarding any skin, and finely chop. Keep to one side until required. At this point you could put the cooking liqueur in the fridge for a day or two.
  4. For the dumplings: Place all the ingredients in a food processor then blitz until you have a smooth, thick paste. At this point I placed my gooey paste in the freezer for an hour to firm up (alternatively place in the fridge for a bit longer). Shape into quenelles using two largish teaspoons (see how Rachel does it here) then add to the soup as instructed below.
  5. When you are ready to eat the soup place the broth in a large saucepan. Slice the remainder of the leeks and add these to the pan along with the diced cooked chicken and any breast meat left over from the dumplings. Bring to the boil and simmer for 25 minutes or so until the leeks are tender. Adjust the seasoning according to taste. Just before you are ready to serve add the dumplings. They should be ready after 5 minutes when they float to the top (they will float to the top before the 5 minutes is up but allow the full time from when the last dumpling went into the pot to ensure they are cooked all the way through – you don’t want to add food poisoning to your woes).
  6. To serve the soup, place a couple of prunes in the bottom of each bowl (if using) then ladle in some of the soup. Top with 3 – 4 chicken dumplings, sprinkle with parsley and serve with some warm buttermilk bread (below).


This would make a great introduction to a Burns Night supper perhaps with some Scotch Mist for dessert.

Buttermilk Bread with Oatmeal

This is basically soda bread but buttermilk bread sounds far more comforting don’t you think? This recipe is inspired by The Scots Kitchen: Its lore and recipes by F. Marion McNeill (originally published in 1929). The oats and honey are my own addition but lend it a wonderfully nutty flavour. If you don’t have any oats or prefer a smoother loaf then replace the oats with the same quantity of plain flour.


  • 300g plain flour
  • 2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 100g medium oatmeal
  • ½ tsp fine sea salt
  • 1 tbsp runny honey
  • 25g butter, cut into small dice
  • 300ml buttermilk
  • Milk
  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
  2. Sieve the flour and bicarbonate of soda into a large bowl.
  3. Stir in the oatmeal and salt then rub in the butter.
  4. Add the honey followed by the buttermilk. Stir until the mixture begins to form a soft dough. If the mixture seems dry add a little milk as you need to bring the ingredients together in a slightly sticky ball. Work quickly and deftly (as you would for scones) as this dough does not like to be overworked.
  5. Place the dough on a lightly floured board then shape into a round loaf. Make a cross on the top with a sharp knife. Place in the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes. After 10 minutes turn the oven down to 180°C.
  6. Allow to cool slightly before thickly slicing and spreading with butter.
Sam BiltonCuisine’s kindest course

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  • A parsnip a day keeps the toothache away | Comfortably Hungry… - March 14, 2013 reply

    […] present cold snap means I can prolong my winter passion for soups whether it’s of the wholesome chicken or the silken vegetable variety. I also believe if you are going to make your own soup it’s only […]

  • Elodie @ Framing Plates - January 29, 2013 reply

    Really nice read Sam! I like the humorous tone you’ve used. And that buttermilk bread looks particularly delicious.
    I wish I could have hired your culinary services last week!

  • Lauren Hairston-Collado - January 28, 2013 reply

    I definitely need to try the chicken dumplings in Cock-a-Leekie. The prunes aren’t optional for me–it’s just not the same without it! I actually made a prune cake today for tea. I really enjoy a prune and I’m not even 80.

    The Buttermilk Bread sounds wonderful (and I’ve got some buttermilk in the fridge), so I’m definitely trying that, too.

    Stay healthy and warm!

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