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Plant Forward BBQ: Sweet Heat Pulled Butternut Squash

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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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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 has foraged for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and executed the food styling for a Super Bowl commercial seen by over 160 million people. Virginia is a Beard award-winning cookbook author, chef, content creator, and motivational speaker. She has lost 65# and kept it off for more than 3 years. Because of her own health journey, she is a cheerleader for others seeking to make lifestyle changes to feel healthier and happier. Her experience inspired her to launch “Good and Good for You” a lifestyle brand rooted in culinary that shares health and wellness content through digital channels; public speaking; and print media. Fans love her approachable spirit and friendly down-to-earth style. For more information visit

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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