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What’s in Season: Winter Squash

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Wintery mix and snowy weather call for comforting foods like this Winter Greens and Butternut Squash Gratin. This cozy casserole is great as a side dish or filling enough for a plant-based main course. Winter squash are earthy, creamy, and rich – the definition of a satisfying supper. Continue reading for information on how to tell the difference between the varieties — from pumpkin and butternut to acorn —  how to clean, cut, and store, and a collection of great recipes.

Winter Squash Glossary on
Clockwise, starting at bottom left: Delicata, Acorn, Kabocha, and Butternut Squash

How to Choose

Many varieties are available year-round, but the natural season of winter squash runs from late summer to mid-winter. Often people gravitate towards acorn because they are familiar with it, but there are many other flavors and textures. Sure, they are all quite similar, but just different enough that I want you to give them a try! Except for spaghetti squash – which is it’s own beast – substitute virtually any winter squash, including pumpkin, for another in any recipe, from main to side to even dessert.

Sugar pumpkins, acorn squash, and butternut are the most readily available types at local supermarkets. Others, such as spaghetti, buttercup, and red kuri, are worth seeking out at farmers’ markets, health food stores, or specialty shops. Regardless of the type, to get the best quality, select winter squash that are bruise-free no soft spots, an intact stem, and a heavy feeling for their size. Once you’ve got them home, store winter squash in a cool, dry place. They do not need to be refrigerated. I often keep a basket on the counter — they’re beautiful!

You can do more than decorate with colorful squash varieties.

Knife Work

Winter Squash of all kinds can be notoriously hard to cut. I’m not sure how I came up with this, but instead of forcing the knife through the squash, it’s a lot easier to use a rolling technique. Check it out.

Types of Winter Squash

One of my absolute favorite recipes, when I was a little girl, was Roast Acorn Squash. Mama would halve the vegetables lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. She’d fill the scooped out center with a creamy pat of butter, amber maple syrup, and chopped Georgia pecans and roast the halves until perfectly tender. The buttery syrup would seep into the bright orange flesh and create a  magical mash. Most of us are familiar with acorn, but there are many other types of this winter vegetable. Here are a few:

Seven Layer Dip on


Sweet and thin-skinned, this Delicata is quick cooking and very useful. The cream colored skin has ribs of dark green stripes. My favorite way to cook this is to thinly slice it and roast it, seeds and all, to make Delicata Chips. For the chips: Heat the oven to 350°F. Line two rimmed baking sheets with silicone mats or parchment paper. Using a chef’s knife, thinly slice the squash into 1/8-inch-thick slices. (I leave the seeds in place; they turn into yummy crispy bits!) Place the squash without crowding on the prepared baking sheets and lightly coat with cooking spray. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to the oven and bake until crisp and lightly charred, about 25 minutes. Serve immediately! You can see them adjacent to the Sinless Seven Layer Dip.

delicata squash on


Sweet and nutty, the most common acorn squash are dark green in color, sometimes tinged with a bit of orange or yellow. The flesh is pale yellow and somewhat fibrous. As the name suggests, it is shaped much like an acorn. It has distinct ridges and a fairly tough skin, making it difficult to peel.

For Mama’s recipe mentioned above: For 2 halved and seeded squash, heat the oven to 375°F. Brush the inside of the halves with a bit of room temperature butter; season with salt and pepper. Turn halves upside down on a baking sheet and bake until tender when pierced with a knife, 30 to 45 minutes. Meanwhile, combine 2/3 cup chopped pecans, 2 tablespoons maple syrup, and 1 teaspoon freshly chopped thyme in a small bowl. Turn the halves upright on the baking sheet. Place an equal amount of the pecan mixture in the cavities. Return to the oven and bake until tender and the syrup is bubbly, an additional 10 to 15 minutes. 

acorn squash on

Sweet Dumpling 

Shaped a bit like an acorn squash, sweet dumpling are the size of an extra large apple and usually weighs just under a pound apiece. The skin is often white with mottled yellow, orange, and/or green markings. Inside, the flesh is smooth, tender, and sweet, with a bright orange color. They look like little, white pumpkins with green speckles and stripes between the ribs. Slice it open, and you’ll find bright-orange flesh similar to that of a sweet potato, but not as firm or dense.


This is one of the easiest of all the winter squashes to work with because its smooth skin just pares away with a paring knife or vegetable peeler. Also, they keep well even once they have been cut upon – meaning, I shop for a large one, use what I need, and wrap the rest. It will easily last a week or so and can be carved on and be part of more than one meal. You can now buy pre-cut butternut zoodles and cubed butternut squash in many grocery stores. The long slender neck of the squash is perfect for cubing and I roast the bulbous end, skin and all, as in the recipe below. (The squash in the video above is a butternut squash.)


Kabocha is the generic Japanese word for squash. It has a green, bluish-gray streaked rind and the flesh is deep yellow. Kabocha has a rich sweet flavor, and can be a bit dry when cooked. It could be easily be used in place of butternut or acorn squash — even sweet potato.

kabocha squash on

Seedy Innerbelly

Pumpkin seeds are edible — as are seeds from other winter squash! Some are larger and tougher than others, not only variety to variety, but also squash to squash. I almost always toast the seeds for a garnish for the dish. They taste great and it’s a handy step to prevent food waste.

Clean’ Em Up

The best way to remove seeds is a large spoon. Place the seeds in a strainer in a bowl filled with water. The seeds will float making separating the seeds from any of the stringy insides much easier. Using your fingers, separate the seeds then pat them dry with paper towels or a clean kitchen towel.

Ready, Set, Bake

Preheat your oven to 375F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick silicone baking sheet. Place the seeds on the prepared sheet pan; drizzle with a bit of oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake until golden brown, 25 to 35 minutes. (I like to season the seeds after baking so the spices do not burn.)

Season to Taste

Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a minute or two, and enjoy plain or season with spices such as ground cumin, coriander, garlic powder, or even a bit of cinnamon.

pumpkin seeds on

Best Winter Squash Recipes

I am sharing the recipe for the rich and decadent Winter Greens and Butternut Squash Gratin and a vibrant, beautiful, and tasty recipe for Pan-Seared Winter Squash with Maple Syrup and Pecans. Check out some of my other winter comfort recipes out, too. Thanks for reading!

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Virginia Willis 

pan seared winter squash on


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Winter Greens and Butternut Squash Gratin

Serves 8 to 10
Prep Time30 minutes
Active Time1 hour
Total Time1 hour 30 minutes
Course: Main Course, Side Dish, vegetable
Cuisine: American, French, Southern
Keyword: casserole, gratin, kale, vegetable recipes, winter squash
Yield: 10


  • 2 teaspoons unsalted butter plus more for the gratin dish
  • 2 butternut squashes, (about 3 pounds total), cut in half lengthwise and seeded
  • 1 10-ounce bag chopped kale
  • 2 tablespoons pure olive oil
  • 6 cloves garlic very finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • Pinch of ground allspice
  • Leaves from 4 sprigs thyme, chopped
  • 11/2 cups heavy cream
  • 3 tablespoons plain or whole-wheat fresh or panko breadcrumbs
  • 2/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese about 2 1 /2 ounces
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper


  • Preheat the oven to 400°F. Butter a large gratin dish. Peel the squash, then cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices; set aside.
  • Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the kale and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes. Drain well in a colander, then squeeze out any excess water.
  • Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and the well-drained greens. Cook until the greens are slightly wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.
  • Meanwhile, place half the sliced squash in the prepared dish and season with salt and pepper. Combine the nutmeg, allspice, and thyme in a small bowl. Spoon the kale over the squash and sprinkle with half the seasoning mixture. Top with remaining squash and sprinkle with the remaining seasoning.
  • Pour the cream over the gratin and cover with a piece of aluminum foil. Bake for 25 minutes, remove the foil, and press down on the squash with a spatula to compress. Cover and continue baking until the squash is soft when pierced with the tip of a knife, about 20 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, combine the breadcrumbs and cheese in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Decrease the oven temperature to 375°F. Remove the foil from the gratin dish and sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture over the squash. Dot with the butter and continue baking, uncovered, until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for about 10 minutes before serving.

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Gratin photo by Helene Dujardin. All other photos by Virginia Willis. Gratin recipe adapted from Basic to Brilliant, Y’all by Virginia Willis © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Photography © 2011 by Helene Dujardin. For more information please visit

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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. She is a James Beard award-winning cookbook author and chef for Food Network Kitchen. Virginia lost 65 pounds and has kept if off for over 3 years. Her health journey has been documented in Eating Well, as a cover story for Woman’s World, Allrecipes, and AARP. Virginia has embraced her new outlook on life and has become a cheerleader for those wanting to make their own life changes, “If a French-trained Southern chef can do it, you can, too!” Her cookbooks include Fresh Start: Cooking with Virginia My Real Life Daily Guide to Healthy Eating and Weight Loss; Secrets of the Southern Table, Lighten Up, Y’all, Bon Appétit, Y’all, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, Okra, and Grits. She is the former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart, 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 Alex vs America, The Rachel Ray Show, Food Network’s Chopped, CBS This Morning, Fox Family and Friends, Martha Stewart Living, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Virginia has also been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, People Magazine, Eater, and Food52. She has contributed to Eating Well, Garden & Gun, and Bon Appétit, and more. Fans love her down-to-earth attitude and approachable spirit. Learn more about Virginia and Good and Good for You Living, a real life health and wellness approach for mind, body, and spirit that includes food, fun, and fitness at

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