While stuffing is often just associated with holiday celebrations, it can be a delicious go-to recipe for a healthy dinner any night of the week. Traditional recipes might call for butter, oil, eggs, or even cooked sausage. Yet it’s easy to ditch these caloric, unhealthy ingredients and opt for healthy plant-based flavors. You can use a variety of cooked grains and whole grain breads to bring healthy vegan protein and fiber. Clean out the fridge with sliced mushrooms, celery, onion, and even diced apple. Add some interesting texture from your pantry with dried fruit, chopped nuts, or roasted seeds. Mix it all together and stuff inside of a roasted squash. Enjoy the comforting satisfaction from your single-serve entrée. This makes an impressive show-stopper for a plant-based dinner, with variations to fit any gluten-free requests or highbrow foodie guests.
Here are my 5 Chef’s Tips for Cooking the Ultimate Stuffed Squash:
Chef’s Plant-Based Tip #1:
Select the Right Squash
There’s Acorn, Celebration, Delicata, Hubbard, Red Kuri, Butternut, Spaghetti…the list goes on and on. Fall brings in the rainbow collection of squash, in a wide variety of colors, shapes, sizes, and flavors. Just keep in a mind a few key pointers on choosing the right squash:
Size – You want a stuffed squash to feed the right size crowd.
To feed 1 or 2: Delicata squash is ideal. It cooks quickly and one squash will feed 1 person. Add a hearty salad or soup and one squash can feed 2 people.
To feed 4: Choose Acorn squash, and it’s many varieties (green, white, Celebration, Confetti, or “Fiesta”)
To feed 6 or more: Pumpkin. Choose a baking pumpkin (under 4 pounds). Save the big guys just for carving and decoration. You can also just double-up how many Acorn Squash you use.
Shape and Hardness –
Obviously, you want a squash that can be stuffed. While Butternut makes for some delicious soup, it’s long shape doesn’t do well for stuffing. Some squash like Hubbard and Red Kuri are incredibly hard, making it a challenge to cut without an electric saw and a lot of shoulder muscle. These harder squash soften after roasting in the oven a bit, but I’ve found the flavor doesn’t seem to weigh out the effort. I prefer the golden sweetness of Acorn, Delicata, and Pumpkin.
Chef’s Plant-Based Tip #2:
Choose the Stuffing: Bread, Rice, or Quinoa
Bread is your traditional go-to stuffing ingredient, but even there the possibilities are endless. Of course, you can just use up whatever stale ends or leftover slices you might have laying on your counter. But you can also try some new flavors and colors. I love the dark, slightly-sour flavor of Pumpernickel. Rye has that synonymous caraway flavor. A hearty multi-grain will offer some good texture and chew, and traditional whole wheat has neutral flavor.
Healthy Chef Tip: Bread is the easiest way to add nutrition to a traditional stuffing. Swap out your heavily-refined white bread for whole wheat. Immediately, you’ll pack in extra protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, without changing the flavor too much. The bread is just a sponge soak up flavor. Once you mix in all of the other stuffing ingredients, herbs, and spices, whether you used white or wheat bread won’t even be noticed.
Classic Chef’s Tip: To heighten the sponge quality of the bread, it’s best to dry it out first. To make good dry croutons, you have two options:
Slowly Stale -- Cut or tear the bread into bite-sized pieces and leave on the counter a couple of days to get stale.
Quickly Toast – Take your bite-sized pieces and spread on a baking sheet. Bake at 350F for 25-30 minutes, stirring a few times during the baking. No need to add extra oil.
Problem: Chef Katie, how can I get my stuffing to hold together like a traditional stuffing?
Plant-Based Solution: Traditional stuffing will sometimes have a couple of beaten eggs mixed in with the bread to bind it together. In lieu of eggs, you can substitute with Flax “eggs”. For every 1 chicken egg you want to replace simply combine this ratio:
1 tablespoon ground flax meal + 3 tablespoons warm water + 5 minutes to “set”
After 5 minutes, you have a gooey “egg” that you can fold into your bread mixture to help it bind.
Besides Bread: Rice, Quinoa, Grains
Maybe you’re going gluten-free, maybe you’re just not into bread, or maybe you’ve got some leftover rice in the fridge. Whatever the reason, you can also use rice, quinoa, or other grains like millet, amaranth, and barley in your stuffing recipe. If cooking from scratch, add some flavor to the cooking water. Below I’ll give you some more tips on flavoring, but the easiest step is to add a teaspoon of Poultry seasoning to your cooking water.
Problem: How much rice or grain should I use in place of bread?
Chef Katie’s Solution: Use about ½ cup uncooked grain (1 cups cooked) for every 4 people. Once you combine it with all of your other flavoring ingredients, this is about the right ratio to fill a large Acorn squash
Question: Chef Katie, how can I jazz up rice for an impressive stuffing?
Chef Katie’s Plant-Based Tip: Use a rice blend to add impressive variety, with minimal effort. There are delicious Wild Rice blends, Tri-Color quinoa mixes, and Great Grain mixes available in most stores, at reasonable cost. Pick up a bag, follow the cooking directions, and you’re set to go.
Chef’s Plant-Based Tip #3:
Adding Flavors – Balance of Savory and Sweet
When it comes to flavors in stuffing, I like to stick to tradition. The holiday season is full of classic flavor from herbs: Rosemary, Marjoram, Thyme, Sage. You might even have a jar of Poultry seasoning on hand for the holidays…use it up! Add a teaspoon or two to your stuffing. These add deep, savory flavors that brings up comforting memories of past holidays. Just the smell of rosemary and sage will often remind you of Thanksgiving dinner. Sure, you can experiment with chili powder, curry blends, and smoked salts…but just be sure you’re feeding some adventurous eaters. I love adding fresh mint to my quinoa stuffing to make the flavor pop. However, when feeding a crowd of more “traditionalists”, I’ll opt for fresh parsley instead.
To balance the savory flavors of tradition, it’s nice to add a touch of sweetness. This is easy, as the squash itself is sweet. Once you roast off the squash, scoop out the flesh and mix it into the stuffing. The naturally-sweet squash will create interesting flavors, which would amp up even boring boxed stuffing. For a real sweet tooth, you can add dried fruits. Cherry, cranberries, dates, golden raisins, and currants all add pops of sweetness. Just keep a light hand on these as you don’t want too much sweetness in your entrée. A couple tablespoons is plenty for a recipe feeding 4-6 people.
Question: How much herbs or spices should I use?
Chef Katie’s Answer: Use about 2 teaspoons of dried spice for a recipe feeding 4 to 6 people. This is about 2 tablespoons fresh herbs.
Chef’s Plant-Based Tip #4:
Layer on Texture: Add Nuts, Seeds, and Fruit
Texture is often one of the most overlooked elements of a recipe, but such a small detail can really heighten the flavors in a dish. You have a plethora of options to choose from, and most crunchy ideas are already sitting in your pantry. Nuts are probably the easiest go-to. You might have a jar of Spanish peanuts that is a regular snack. Perhaps you have an opened bag of pecans that you used for making those Pumpkin Graham Muffins. Or you may even have a party mix of roasted almonds, hazelnuts, and brazil nuts looking for a new use. Use them! To get the most flavor, choose dry-roasted nuts…or roast your own. Spread the nuts on a baking sheet and roast at 350 for 10-12 minutes to bring out natural, delicious flavor.
For a less calorie-dense crunchy ingredient, instead of going nuts…go fruit! Apples and pears have great crisp texture with a tad of sweetness. Plus, they both happy to be in season during the fall and winter…right at the same time as the squash. How convenient! Don’t overthink it on the variety of fruit you use – whatever you would pack for lunch will suffice. Go fancy with Honeycrisp and Comice, or keep it basic with Golden Delicious and Bosc.
Whether you’re adding big Brazil nuts or crisp Gala apples, Just be sure to chop any crunchy ingredients into bite-sized pieces.
Problem: Chef Katie, nuts are expensive…especially organic.
If you want a cheaper option, sunflower and sesame seeds are usually more budget-friendly. Plus, you can find both of these already-roasted in most groceries.
Problem: Chef Katie, my son has a nut allergy. Is there something else I can use instead?
Again, seeds are a good substitute for nuts. Sunflower seeds are my favorite, especially because their size is perfect for tiny kids’ mouths.
Problem: If I use fruit like apples or pears, won’t they turn brown?
Yes, oxidation is a real problem, and this is something you should address if you’re making this stuffing a day ahead of time. The best way to combat the oxygen that causes this browning is to use acid. In the culinary world, this means lemon juice, vinegar, or citric acid. For most fall-inspired recipes, apple cider vinegar is my preferred choice because of its seasonal appeal and neutral color. Champagne vinegar also has a relatively neutral flavor. You can also add a ½ teaspoon or so of citric acid to prevent browning LINK.
Chef’s Tip: To maximize the browning-prevention, toss your diced fruit in the vinegar or citric acid before mixing in the rest of the ingredients.
Chef’s Plant-Based Tip #5: Getting in Done in Under an Hour
Now you have the info and tips you need to get started, but how do you manage your time to get your Stuffed Squash on the table in under an hour. This is where a chef’s organization and time-management comes in handy. Here is how to organize yourself to be the most efficient cook:
Step One: Toast nuts or seeds.
Place the nuts or seeds on foil or a small baking sheet and roast at 350 for 10-12 minutes. You can do it faster, at a higher temp, but just be attentive. Don’t burn your nuts!
Step Two: Roast your Squash
While the nuts are roasting, get your squash ready. Thoroughly scrub the skin with a vegetable brush. Cut off the top and scoop out the seeds. As soon as the nuts are done roasting, carefully remove them from the oven and transfer to a bowl. Place the squash in the baking dish, add enough water to cover the bottom, and get roasting. Crank up the heat to 425. It’ll take about 30-45 minutes to roast the squash.
Chef’s Insider Tip: You can cook squash in your microwave. I still recommend scooping out the seeds ahead of cooking, but then microwave in a heat-safe container, with a little water, for about 6-8 minutes, depending on the size of the squash.
Step Three: Cook your grains or toast your Croutons
If you’re using rice or quinoa, you’ll want to get this cooking. Most rice is done under 30 minutes, but quinoa cooks in just 12 minutes. Check the package for details. For toasting bread, it’ll take about 25-30 minutes at 350. If your squash is already roasting at 425, just be aware that your croutons will cook faster – probably about 15-20 minutes. Keep an eye on them, keep them on the highest rack, and stir them frequently.
Step Four: Prep and Cook your “Mix-ins”
If you’re adding and sautéed vegetables, cook them now. Leeks, celery, onion, and mushrooms bring delicious flavors after a quick 10-12 minutes’ sauté. If you’re sticking with raw flavoring ingredients (like shallots, diced apples, and dried fruit), prepare all of this now. Making a flax egg to bind everything? Do it now. Chop your fresh herbs and measure your spices. Get your mixing bowl loaded and ready to go for your grains and cooked squash.
Step Five: Bring it all together
When your grains are done cooking (or your croutons are done toasting), add them to your Stuffing mixing bowl. Add the toasted nuts or seeds. Once the squash is done roasting, remove it from the oven and set aside to let it cool slightly. Use a clean kitchen towel to hold the warm squash. Use a large spoon to scoop out the flesh, right into your Stuffing mix bowl. Combine everything, and taste to adjust seasoning.
Step Six: Stuff and Bake
Time to re-stuff the squash, cover it, and pop it back in the oven just a few minutes until it’s nice and hot. If you’re making this to eat right away, just 5-7 minutes in the oven will do fine. If you’re making this ahead of time, bake the squash for 25-30 minutes at 350F. Be sure to cover the baking dish so that the squash and stuffing don’t dry out.
Chef’s Make-Ahead Tip: You can make your stuffed squash 2-3 days ahead of time. The flavors will come together and the mixture will hold together better. To reheat the squash, simply place in a baking dish with a touch of water in the bottom of the pan. Cover and bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes.
Now you’ve got my 5 Chef’s Tips for Making the Ultimate Stuffed Squash. You’re ready to practice making this satisfying, delicious recipe. You’ll create incredible, rich flavors with less calories, less fat, and more nutrition than traditional recipes. To get the full recipe, with nutrition information and more, Click Below:
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About the Author:
Chef Katie Simmons
Katie is a Personal Chef based in Chicago. She specializes in creating delicious, healthy recipes for those with special dietary concerns like gluten-free, oil-free, plant-based, and low-residue. Outside of the kitchen, she is a Fitness Instructor for Equinox, with over 13 years experience in the fitness industry, and a blogger for Kuli Kuli Foods. For fun, she loves to travel. Some of her favorite trips include 4 days on the Incan Trail in Peru, 10 days of hiking in the Patagonia of Argentina and Chile, and exploring the pretzels and vineyards of Germany.