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Plant Forward BBQ: Sweet Heat Pulled Butternut Squash

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vegetarian bbq on

Wait, what? I can hear folks now. Vegetarian BBQ? Has she lost her mind? Yes! Well, it’s not a pit-cooked pig, that’s for sure, but hear me out. Barbecue is a solemn and serious business. There is perhaps nothing in the realm of Southern food that stirs deeper emotions. It’s veritably a religion in the South — and so is Southern hospitality. At my table, everyone is welcome and we need to include vegans and vegetarians, too!

BBQ Heresy

There’s a fantastic story in Southern Belly that conveys the absolute seriousness of barbecue south of the Mason Dixon line about a lifelong BBQ pitmaster in rural Tennessee. The pitmaster said, “You know, I got a call from this place in New York called Virgil’s. They wanted me to come up there to teach them how to do whole hog barbecue – wanted to pay me ten thousand dollars. Three months! They must be crazy. You can’t learn how to do this in three months!” The pitmaster was not incredulous over the sum of money, but in that, someone has the audacity to think the art of BBQ could be learned in three months.

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When I’ve attended barbecues in the past the vegan and vegetarian options made me so sad. A lonely corn cob rolling around on a plate with a slice of tomato. That’s not festive! I would never have a party and knowingly serve food that was inaccessible to some of the guests, for whatever reasons. As a host, it’s important to consider all kinds of allergies and aversions when planning a menu and make sure that there’s something for everyone.

I recently needed a plant-forward Southern dish for a presentation and dialed up my vegan guru, Kathy Hester. I love flipping food ideas on their head and she’s always a source of inspiration. She told me about her sweet potato Ropa Vieja; one thing led to another and here we are with my Sweet Heat Pulled Butternut BBQ Squash. I love the simplicity of using spiralized butternut squash. It’s a great main for vegans and vegetarians and makes a great plant-forward side dish for omnivores, too.

There are other options for vegan and vegetarian BBQ including jackfruit, tempeh, and tofu. I especially like this Sweet Heat Butternut Squash version because it is minimally processed. Here’s a recent video I shot for the University of Massachusetts Tastes of the World Chef Conference making my Pulled Butternut Squash.

Recipe Round-Up

If you are hardcore vegan, you can move right along! (And, please don’t bother sending me a mad note about eating meat.)  However, In the spirit of “something for everyone” here is a list of great BBQ (and grilling) recipes for omnivores — chicken, pulled pork, side dishes, and slaws.

I always have a jar of my Sweet Heat BBQ Rub in the cupboard and a jar of my Tangy BBQ Sauce in the fridge. You can use your favorite store-bought rub and sauce, or another recipe. If you have a spiralizer give it a whirl, or you can buy spiralized butternut squash noodles at many grocery stores. (Check out this video if you need help with How to Cut a Butternut Squash.) Thanks so much for reading. Let me know what you think if you give my Pulled Butternut BBQ Squash a try! Stay safe.

Bon Appétit, Y’all

Virginia Willis

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vegan BBQ on

Sweet Heat Pulled Butternut Squash Sandwiches

Prep Time15 minutes
Cook Time30 minutes
Course: bbq, dinner, sandwich
Cuisine: American, Southern, Vegan, Vegetarian
Keyword: bbq, grilling, July 4th, sandwich
Servings: 4


  • 20 ounces from 1 large top portion of butternut squash peeled
  • 1 tablespoon Sweet Heat Dry Rub recipe below or your favorite dry rub
  • Tangy BBQ Sauce recipe below
  • Cole Slaw for serving, recipe below
  • Buns for serving


  • Heat the oven to 400F. Line a baking sheet with a nonstick silicone baking sheet or spray with nonstick spray.
  • Trim the top portion of the butternut that can be spiralized, reserving the bottom for another recipe.
  • Spiralize using the thickest noodle setting of your spiralizer. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet and season with Sweet Heat Dry Rub. Transfer to the oven and roast until tender, about 10 minutes.
  • Remove from the oven and add enough BBQ Sauce to coat.
  • Spoon a portion of the coated squash onto a bun. Top with a spoonful of cole slaw and more sauce. Serve immediately.

Tangy Barbecue Sauce

Prep Time5 minutes
Cook Time20 minutes
Course: bbq
Cuisine: American, Southern
Keyword: barbecue, bbq


  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 sweet onion very finely chopped
  • 2 1/2 cups ketchup
  • 2 cups apple cider or distilled white vinegar
  • 1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons black pepper or to taste
  • 2 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • Coarse salt


  • In a saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat; add the onions and simmer until soft and melted, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the ketchup, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, black pepper, brown sugar, cayenne pepper and lemon juice. Bring to a boil, decrease the heat to low and simmer until the flavors have smoothed and mellowed, at least 10 and up to 30 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to 6 weeks.

Sweet Heat Rub

Servings: 3 cups


  • 1 cup paprika
  • 1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • ½ cup coarse kosher salt
  • ¼ cup cayenne pepper
  • ¼ cup garlic powder
  • ¼ cup black pepper


  • Combine all ingredients. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 months.

Lightened Up Cole Slaw

If you want to make this vegan, make sure to use vegan mayonnaise, yogurt, and buttermilk.
Servings: 6


  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons 0% Icelandic yogurt
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar optional
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1/4 small head green cabbage cored and finely shredded (about 2 cups)
  • 1/4 small head red cabbage cored and finely shredded (about 2 cups)
  • 1 carrot shredded or in peeled into ribbons
  • 1 stalk celery thinly sliced
  • ½ sweet onion sliced
  • 2 green onions sliced
  • 1 jalapeno diced
  • Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper


  • In a large bowl, combine the mayonnaise, yogurt, buttermilk, lemon juice, vinegar, sugar, and mustard. Whisk until smooth. Add the vegetables; stir well to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate to marinate for at least 2 hours before serving. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper before serving.

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Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained Chef Virginia Willis’ biography includes making chocolate chip cookies with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, foraging for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvesting capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and hunting for truffles in France. She is talent and chef-instructor for the digital streaming platform Food Network Kitchen. Her segments feature authentic and innovative Southern cooking. She was the celebrity chef at the Mansion at Churchill Downs for the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby. Virginia has spoken at SXSW, cooked for the James Beard Foundation, and beguiled celebrities such as Bill Clinton, Morgan Freeman, and Jane Fonda with her cooking — but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Recently, her work has been inspired by her weight loss success story, Virginia has lost 65# and kept it off for over 2 1/2 years! “If a French-trained, Southern chef can do it, you can, too.” She is the author of Fresh Start; Secrets of the Southern Table; Lighten Up, Y’all; Bon Appétit, Y’all; Basic to Brilliant, Y’all; Okra; and Grits. Lighten Up, Y’all won a James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence in the Focus on Health Category. Lighten Up, Y’all as well as her first cookbook, Bon Appétit, Y’all, were finalists in the Best American Cookbook for the International Association of Cookbook Awards and were also named by the Georgia Center of the Book as “Books Georgians Should Read.” She is the former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart Living, Bobby Flay, and Nathalie Dupree; has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants; and traveled the world producing food stories – from making cheese in California to escargot farming in France. She has appeared on Food Network’s Chopped, CBS This Morning, Fox Family and Friends, Martha Stewart Living, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. She’s been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, People Magazine, Eater, and Food52 and has contributed to Eating Well, GRLSQUASH, Culture, Garden & Gun, and Bon Appétit, and more. The Chicago Tribune praised her as one of “Seven Food Writers You Need to Know.” Her legion of fans loves her down-to-earth attitude, approachable spirit, and traveling exploits. Her culinary consulting company, Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc specializes in content creation, recipe development, culinary editorial and production services, cookbook writing, media training, spokesperson and brand representation, and public speaking. Virginia is on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force, the Atlanta Community Food Bank Advisory Board, as well as the Community Farmers Market Advisory Board. She is a food and hunger advocate for No Kid Hungry and a premier member of the No Kid Hungry Atlanta Society. She a member of The James Beard Foundation, Chef’s Collaborative, Georgia Organics, and Southern Foodways Alliance.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Jessica

    Thank you for offering plant-based options! As a southern vegan, I love seeing traditional recipes “flipped on their head” to offer a more ethical and healthful meal. Cheers:)

    1. yay! thanks so much — I am an omnivore, but am eating a lot more plant-forward/focused. I really appreciate your comment and thanks for reading! Best VA

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