If On A Winter’s Night A Cock-A-Leekie

We open with Gustav Klimt’s Garden Path with Chickens (1916).  If a blog post is a path to a particular world of sense and sound, then this one includes a chicken.  And a cow.  And leeks.  Let’s walk further down the path.  The first words of a favorite novel open thus, “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.”  From that direct address, the reader turns a page into a railway station, a bar, a conversation with a woman, and then back to you, back to the reader.  I think of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler as beginning my journey to the land of Cock-A-Leekie, which is in France, in Scotland, and in Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail Eating.

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But before I step into St. John’s kitchen, I should recount previous incarnations of this fowl and leek dish.  The Larousse Gastronomique includes this listing,

Cock-a-leekie (Scottish Cookery).  SOUPE AU COQ ET POIREAUX–Add to chicken broth (made with a medium-sized fowl), strained and skimmed of its fat, 3/4 cup (2 decilitres) of the white part of leeks cut into thin strips and simmered in butter and the flesh of the chicken cut in thin pieces.  Note.  Although this recipe, with the further justification of its title, seems to demand a cockerel, the soup is most often prepared with a plump, tender hen.  (921)

Cockerel, rooster, male chicken.  Harold McGee spins out the history of the chicken in On Food and Cooking:

Chickens are descendants of the aggressive, pugnacious red jungle fowl of northern India and southern China.  Gallus gallus is a member of the pheasant family or Phasianidae, a large, originally Eurasian group of birds that tend to colonize open forest or the edge between field and wood.  Chickens seem to have been domesticated in the vicinity of Thailand before 7500 BCE, and arrived in the Mediterranean around 500 BCE.  (139)

Under “Potages” in his Le Guide Culinaire, Auguste Escoffier includes this recipe,

Potage Cocky-Leeky: Set half a fowl to cook very gently in one and one-half pints of light and clear veal stock with a few aromatics. Also prepare a julienne of the white of three leeks; stew this in butter without colouration, and complete the cooking thereof in the cooking-liquor of the fowl, strained and poured carefully away. Pour the preparation into the soup-tureen, and add the meat of the fowl, cut into a julienne. Serve some stewed prunes separately, but this is optional.

We pick up Italo Calvino again.  “Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat.  Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach.  In an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock.  In the hammock, if you have a hammock.” (3)

I give you the chicken and corned beef brisket in the roasting pan. Corned beef gets its name from the large rock salts (“corns”) that are used to cure the meat.

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With this move I am diverting from Fergus Henderson’s recipe, much like how Calvino’s novel changes scenes, characters, and yet still, you the reader, . . . read.

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I’ve added all the vegetables for the chicken and beef to be roasted together, while in Henderson’s recipe the animals are simmered separately.  A nice still-life of onions, carrots, leeks, bay leaves, celery, peppercorns, thyme, parsley and rosemary.

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Meanwhile, I’m making a stock with greens, carrots and a smoked ham hock.  Another addition of my own.  Let’s listen to a little cooking music. Something that pairs well with Italian metafiction and Scottish cuisine: Andrew Bird’s Imitosis.

Good.  Let’s look in the oven.

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Three and a half hours at 350 degrees tends to brown flesh deeply.  I let the bird and cow relax and chill, turning to duck fat.

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Now that we’re building from the bottom up, let’s sweat some onions.

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Once the onions have become translucent, it’s time to add the leeks.  By the way, what is a leek? Let’s ask Dr. Gastronomique.

Hardy biennial plant, the origins of which go back a very long way, which has never been found in its wild state and is believed to be a cultivated variety of oriental garlic. (582)

And as for Mr. Calvino?  “You are at your desk, you have set the book among your business papers as if by chance; at a certain moment you shift a file and you find the book before your eyes, you open it absently, you rest your elbows on the desk, you rest your temples against your hands, curled into fists, you seem to be concentrating on an examination of the papers and instead you are exploring the first pages of the novel.” (7)

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Now it’s time to take a step or two toward a mirepoix.  Sweat carrots and celery.

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Ah, the alchemical method of cooking is truly magical.  Now it’s time to add the broth that I’ve actually been working on for two days.  I’ve lost count of the vegetables, spices, meat and fish I’ve added but the smell is divine.

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Boil and bubble for a few hours, letting the ingredients meet each other, dance, then merge.  Cut up the brisket and add.  Also, all the drippings from the roasting pan go in now.

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Let this simmer for an hour.  We’re getting close. Add the chicken.

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It’s almost done.  Should we pause?  Here’s Far From Any Road by The Handsome Family, and yes the opening song for True Detective.

Add prunes.  Wait.  Prunes?  Yes, Henderson’s recipe calls for it, “A slight salt undertone is a good thing, though, as it plays well with the sweet prunes we shall add at the end.”  In her exhaustive history of French cuisine, Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789, Barbara Ketcham Wheaton writes

A comparison can be made, however, between the late-fourteenth century menus in the Vatican Library’s manuscript of the Viandier and those dating from mid-fifteenth century and therefore already forty years old at their appearance in the first printed edition.  A few changes have crept in, most notably in the increased number of sweet dishes in every part of the meal. This growing emphasis on sweetness was probably the most important single development in sixteenth-century cooking. (30)

John Ayto in his An A to Z of Food and Drink, points out that the first printed Cocky-Leeky recipe appears in 1598, so there may be something to the historical sweetening of a dish that originally just called for a cock and a leek.

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Well, simmer until the prunes swell then serve, then the glory.  The combination of chicken and brisket, along with everything else, makes for a deep, salty-sweet, umami-rich taste.

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Now that I have my bowl of Cock-a-Leekie, I think it’s time to return to some winter traveling.

“Let’s see.  Perhaps you feel a bit lost, as when a person appears who, from the name, you identified with a certain face, and you try to make the features you are seeing tally with those you had in mind, and it won’t work.  But then you go on and you realize that the book is readable nevertheless, independently of what you expected of the author, it’s the book in itself that arouses your curiosity; in fact, on sober reflection, you prefer it this way, confronting something and not quite knowing what it is.”  (9)

Bon Appétit!

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