Winter Side Dishes

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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.

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:


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.


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. 

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.

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.

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!

Stuffed Pumpkin in Eating Well

Butternut Squash and Pear Crostini in Southern Living

Spiced Pumpkin Mash on
Roast Winter Squash with Pecan Dukkah

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Virginia Willis 

Winter Greens and Butternut Squash Gratin

Serves 8 to 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.


Pan-Seared Winter Squash

This recipe mirrors the flavors of that Mama's classic Roast Acorn Squash, but with far less butter and sugar. The bonus is that the natural sugar in the slices becomes mottled with a series of deep golden brown circles when pan-seared; it’s gorgeous. It’s then finished in the oven with a few whole sprigs of thyme and bay leaves scattered between the pieces to enhance the savory flavor. Lastly, just a drizzle of maple syrup and a smattering of pecans finish the dish. This will become a guaranteed go-to dish this season.

2 tablespoons canola oil (more if needed)
1 acorn squash (cut into eighths)
4-6 1/4- inch thick slices of butternut squash
1 small red onion (stem end trimmed and root attached, cut lengthwise into eighths)
2 bay leaves (preferably fresh)
2 thyme sprigs (preferably fresh)
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1-2 tablespoons chopped pecans
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 350°F. Brush a large skillet with oil and heat over medium heat. Add squash wedges without crowding and cook on both sides until mottled and browned, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate. (You will need to sear the squash in batches.) Repeat with remaining oil, squash, and onion. Return all squash and onion to the skillet and season with salt and pepper. Tuck the herbs about the skillet and transfer to the oven. Bake until tender to the point of a knife, about 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and drizzle over the maple syrup and sprinkle over the pecans. Return to the oven to warm the syrup and lightly toast the pecans, about 5 minutes. Remove the herbs and serve immediately.

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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

Copyright © 2020 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

The post What’s in Season: Winter Squash appeared first on Virginia Willis.

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WinterSquash Kabocha VirginiaWillis Delicata Butternut

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