WeLoveDC authors Cathy (cooking queen) and Katie (restaurant aficionado) have paired up to bring you a double-hitting feature about great seasonal dishes that chefs at local area restaurants are whipping up this fall. Katie gets insider info about the chef and the restaurant, and Cathy recreates the chef’s recipe at home. Cheers to that.
To our surprise, Chef Glenn Babcock, the new owner/executive chef of Nage Bistro made an industrial kitchen with some clout a fun, un-intimidating and easy place to be. Nage Bistro is located in Dupont - on Scott Circle across from the Australian Embassy. Cathy and Katie visited early on a Saturday morning and strapped on aprons - determined to learn how to make Chef Babcock’s Butternut Squash Soup.
Katie: So, let’s get one thing straight here – I like to cook, but I don’t LOVE to cook the way some people do. I don’t set aside time to slave over the stove to create a great meal. I have one barely-organized recipe binder, and I would much rather read Ruth Reichl or Gael Greene than Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything from cover to cover (though it is my absolute go-to book when in a pinch!). I go to the Farmer’s Market every single weekend, and I don’t tend to bust out the Bertolli if/when I do cook. I’m proficient, I’m fine, but I’d much rather park myself at a restaurant than whip up a nice Boeuf Bourguignon, no matter how popular Julie and Julia is at the moment.
Cathy: I do LOVE to cook. There’s something entirely satisfying about successfully creating a dish at home, and then devouring it for instant pleasure. Cooking is a great outlet for being creative and relaxing, and I tend to do a decent job slaving over a recipe for hours in the kitchen. But keep in mind - I have no formal training, not even a knife SKILLZ class like Katie). That being said, I was a little hesitant heading into this cooking challenge. For starters, you want me to recreate a chef’s dish at home? Sounding more like an inquisitive three year old than an accomplished cook, “Why? But why?” I hovered over the chef, scribbled down the recipe and took a photo montage of each step. My second hesitation with this challenge had more to do with the meal itself: I don’t love Butternut Squash Soup. I always want to like it – it screams “fall” with all its warmth and creaminess – but I never do. So Chef Babcock already had a big challenge ahead of himself.
Chef Babcock’s Recipe for Ancho Chile Butternut Squash Soup
Butternut squash is the best and the easiest of the squashes, but this soup could substitute any squash (or pumpkin). When purchasing it, look for 1 large squash with a fatter neck. You will get more meat that way - and more bang for your buck. When preparing it, trim off the top and the bottom, then slice it in half where the bulbous part meets the long neck. Peel the squash halves with a knife, not a peeler (a peeler won’t get deep enough to the meat of the squash). Scoop out the seeds and the inner bulb like you would a pumpkin. Then dice.
- 1 large yellow onion, sliced
- 2 cloves of garlic, sliced
- 2 small (or 1 large) butternut squash(es), roughly diced, reserving the seeds
- 1 cup of Sherry wine
- 3.5 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
- 2 dried ancho chiles, whole
- 1 bunch of thyme, rinsed
- 1 bunch of sage, rinsed
- 2.5 tsp salt
- 1 tsp pepper
- 2 cups creme fraiche (or substitute heavy cream)
- 1/4 c cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons canola or grape seed oil
Special Equipment (important!):
- Large soup pot
- Fine strainer (conical strainer preferred)
- Large blender (not immersion blender)
- Heat grape seed oil in the bottom of a large soup pot on medium.
- On a gas grill, hold the ancho chiles, one at a time, over the flame for about one minute each. Then let them cool, split them open, and remove all of the seeds. If you do not have a gas grill, seed the ancho’s first, then open them to flatten and put in the hot oil for about 2 minutes, then remove them.
- In the hot oil, lightly brown the slices of garlic (quick, about one minute) being careful not to let them get too brown. Then add the sliced onions. Let the onion sweat for about 10 minutes. Put the diced squash in with the onions and garlic. Finely chop the ancho chiles and put in the pot.
- Put the Sherry into the pot and cook for 5-10 minutes. Then add the chicken stock, and the salt and pepper. Cook the squash, immersed in the liquids, until the squash is not so firm that it would smoosh up easily, but if a cake tester were easily inserted and removed. (If you are using an immersion blender, overcook the squash). Add the creme fraiche (or heavy cream).
- When the squash is tender, ladel the soup into the blender (you will have to do this in at least two parts). Ladling the soup will allow you to check the consistency and to remove any excess liquids by leaving them in the pot.
- Blend until finely pureed.
- Pour the pureed soup into a conical, fine strainer – which contains the sage and the thyme at the bottom – pushing the soup through the strainer into a bowl, and muddling the herbs.
- Return the soup to the pot, taste for any seasoning adjustments, and add 1/4 c cider vinegar (optional).
- Serve with caramelized squash seeds and cocoa oil.
Katie: While we worked, I lobbed questions at Chef Babcock. I’ve eaten at his sister restaurant Nage in Rehoboth and have heard the word on the foodie street that DC’s Nage isn’t as good as Rehoboth’s. I asked him about Nage’s reputation, and he explained to me that since he’s taken over, he’s tried to refocus the menu. He said he’s trying to consistently keep 7 specials on the board, with two of them being fish dishes. He wants to bring the focus back to the seafood, where the past chefs have taken it a bit protein heavy. “Nage, in French, means to be in water, to swim,” he said. “I’m trying to bring back the seafood.”
Cathy: To recreate the soup at home, I needed to gather my ingredients. While normally I would have preferred to hit up any of the area’s incredible farmers markets, time is of the essence these days, and I needed one-stop shopping. I headed to Sexy Safeway at 5th and K, hoping their fancy aisles could cater to my every need. I found ancho chiles right away (Chef was worried I would need to get them at Whole Foods and hasn’t seen them at local farmer’s markets – have you?), then butternut squash, and I knew I had at least the basics. I did not find sherry wine or creme fraiche. I decided to wing it. I grabbed a carton of heavy whipping cream and set off into the sunset. (I’ll get to the Sherry replacement disaster in a minute…)
Katie: Since he’s taken over, Chef Babcock reorganized the kitchen, did his own hiring of new line cooks, and honed the skills in the back of the house. I asked him how the takeover process has been going, and if he thinks about Nage’s reputation these days. “Does it keep me up at night? No. But I do think about it,” he says. “The best thing we can do is cook good food, and people will notice. I’ve got a good knowledge of flavor profiles and prefer to simplify foods instead of muddle them.” He says the changes have been well received, that Open Table and Yelp feedback have shown a significant upswing in the past few months. He also said he’s been trying to bring down the price points, from mid-thirties to the teens and twenties – and it shows on the fall menu that we were able to sneak a peek at.
Cathy: Headed back into my kitchen at home – armed with all the knowledge that I could scribble onto a set of 4×6 cards and that I could fit into my camera’s memory card – Chef Babcock taught me a few unexpected lessons when he wasn’t even around.
Babcock Lesson One: Don’t try to be a chef. They’re wearing those special outfits for a reason. Despite having made curried pumpkin soup, which is incredibly similar to the fundamental recipe we’re working with here, the butternut squash soup was surprisingly more complicated. Chef’s buttery, creamy and perfectly pureed consistency became one to vie for - and a reason for me to return to his restaurant this fall. I didn’t have the time or the budget to purchase a bottle of Sherry wine that I would only use once, so I grabbed some red wine vinegar and used it in moderation, thinking it could impart some of the flavor I was looking for. In retrospect, I would have left it out altogether…
Katie: This is a tangent, but I forgot how much standing was involved in restaurant work. I started working in restaurants at the age of 15 and didn’t stop until I was halfway through college, and I have worked in everything from neighborhood bars to super fine dining places, but somehow I had blocked out all the standing. I broke at least 1,000 kitchen rules by hoisting myself up on the counter top. I could hear all the Chefs of my past restaurants screaming at me in unison, but you know what? IT’S HARD TO STAND FOR THAT LONG. Props to Glenn for not having a hissy fit about me sitting on his counter. (End tangent.)
Cathy: I’ll agree with Katie on this one. The chef promised a sprightly 25 minutes to whip up the Butternut Squash Soup. An hour and half later of chopping, boiling and pureeing, I wasn’t too pleased with mine. The thing is - I knew the challenge I was up against. I told the chef frankly, “I do not have a blender, and I do not have a fine, conical strainer.” I do have an immersion blender - which I love and which you would think would be better – well, not in this case. The chef recommended overcooking the squash to compensate for my lack of the correct equipment, but he ensured me the ancho chunks would not puree as nicely (he was right, man…).
Babcock Lesson Two: If you want to cook like a chef, you have to have the right equipment. My immersion blender and pasta strainer didn’t make the cut. My soup came out mostly looking like perfectly pureed soup, but with a grainy consistency absent in the Chef’s version. (Oh, AND I have about 2 cups of strained leftovers that looks like pumpkin-ravioli-filling which REALLY didn’t make the cut. It was hopeless trying to get the soup to any thinner of a consistency, while the chef’s whisked right through his conical strainer.)
Katie: Sitting at the bar in Nage, slurping up bowls of our soup, Cathy and I had some time to ask about the happy hour menu that’s scrawled in chalk beside the bar. The bar bites are incredibly affordable, and half-off already cheap prices. They do a $5,4,3,2,1 special on drinks so you could ultimately wind up with 2 glasses of wine, and three apps for $15 at happy hour, perfect for when the weather cools down and you’re ready to cozy up to a bar.
Cathy: Want to make some Butternut Squash Soup? If you have the right equipment and the will to be uber-fancy, make the chef’s recipe with all its accoutrements. It’s a wonderful soup, and it’s the best Butternut Squash Soup I’ve ever had. However, if you are taking a page from Katie’s book, head straight to happy hour at Nage (when the fall menu comes out late next week) and request a perfectly pureed bowl of Sweet Potato Bisque for $7. OR if you take a page from my book, find a brand of Butternut Squash Soup in a container that you like, and present it to dinner guests with gourmet, homemade cocoa oil and caramelized squash seeds.
Babcock Lesson Three: Look like a chef Sandra Lee – style.
Make Cocoa Oil to drizzle on top of your soups:
Ingredients: 1 tbsp. cocoa powder, 1/8 tsp salt, 1/4 c grape seed or canola oil.
Mix all together.
Katie and Cathy happily paired up for their first look at Capital Chefs to learn their fare share about Nage from a new perspective – the kitchen. Chef Babcock’s Ancho Chile Butternut Squash Soup is an incredible fall dish that you can make at home. But if you’re looking for an easy way to enjoy your warm bowl of soup, mark your calendar and head to Nage late next week for their fall menu. Or, stop by now for Nage’s incredibly affordable and enticing Happy Hour ($1 Frites and $3 Sol!). Chef Glenn Babcock has some incredible Venn-Diagram-inspired flavor combinations he’s just dying to share with you.