BBQ “pulled squash” sandwich

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BBQ pulled spaghetti squash

Vegan pulled pork?

Barbecue season is here, and with it the annual challenge: How do you make truly excellent vegetarian BBQ? Burgers are tasty and all, but there are plenty of reasons to offer meat-free options (and I’m not talking about potato salad on a bun). Maybe:

  • Your guests are vegetarian or vegan
  • You just read Mark Bittman’s VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 and are trying to change your diet
  • It’s Meatless Monday
  • You just read that report about antibiotic-resistant superbugs in ground meat and are never ever eating a burger again
  • You heard that “pulled” BBQ spaghetti squash is just as good as pulled pork

Those are all good reasons, except for the last one. Here’s what “pulled squash” has in common with pulled pork:

1. The word “pulled”
2. Barbecue sauce

I’m sorry, but that’s it. Spaghetti squash is as much like pork as it is like spaghetti, which is to say not very much. Dousing it with barbecue sauce and sticking it on a bun doesn’t change that fact.

Spaghetti squash (curcurbita pepo)

Spaghetti squash (curcurbita pepo)

Don’t get me wrong: I like spaghetti squash. Quite a lot, actually. But pork is unctuous and savory, while spaghetti squash is water-crisp and slightly sweet. Long, slow cooking makes pork shoulder wonderfully tender, but ruins spaghetti squash, which is best when just barely al dente.

Unfortunately, the most common “pulled squash” recipe roasts the squash face-down with some water in the pan, effectively steaming it. By the time you stir in a bunch of barbecue sauce, the whole thing turns into a soggy, sauce-saturated mess. I know. I tried. And brought it to a friend’s barbecue. (People did enjoy it — as a topping for burgers.)

So how do you give spaghetti squash a bit of roasted crispness while keeping the strands plump and firm? How do you infuse it with smoky-spicy-sweet richness without just drowning it in barbecue sauce?

Spice rubbed spaghetti squash

Before you roast it, rub the spaghetti squash with oil and spices

I looked to our friend Craig, who showed up for our last barbecue 6 hours early, carrying 30 correction: 40 lbs of meat and a smoker. Craig rubs his pork shoulders with paprika, chili powder, cayenne, salt, pepper, and brown sugar, then smokes them all day until they’re meltingly tender. The steam, fat, and spices meld together into a succulent sauce that infuses every shred of the meat and needs no bottled addition.

Obviously, eight or ten hours of smoking was not going to work for squash, but dry seasoning seemed like a good idea, particularly if it was accompanied by a little fat. I got more squash and went back to work. I tried roasting the halves face-up and face-down, oiled and naked. I tried crisping the shredded squash strands under the broiler and on the stovetop, and seasoning them with bottled sauce and dry spice rubs. And here is my conclusion:

“Pulled squash” is not a substitute for pulled pork. That said, it can be pretty good on its own terms. Introduce it as “BBQ roasted spaghetti squash,” and you might actually get some fans.

pulled squash

Spice-rubbed, dry-roasted spaghetti squash is smokey, spicy, and sweet even before you add the barbecue sauce

BBQ roasted spaghetti squash (un-recipe)

  • Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and guts.
  • Brush it with a little fat — olive oil, butter, bacon grease, whatever you like. This will help it brown, giving it a little roasted crispness.
  • Sprinkle it with dry spices before roasting. I used smoked paprika, smoked salt, and a little chili powder. You can add a hit of brown sugar, but I think it’s overkill — squash has some sugars already, and there’s more in most barbecue sauces.
  • Put it on a baking pan and roast it face-up. Do NOT add any water to the pan, and do not cover it.
  • The vague part: roast it in a hot oven (375 – 400 degrees), for twenty to sixty minutes, until you can stab it with a fork and it’s almost (but not quite) tender. I know that’s vague, but squashes come in different sizes, no one agrees on time or temperature, and it doesn’t really matter. Just keep checking it, and take out when it’s al dente. (If you’re making it ahead of time, remember that it will get softer as it rests, and even softer when you reheat it.)
  • Use a fork to scrape the squash flesh out, so the strings separate. Toss the squash to distribute the spice, taste it, and add more spices if you want.
  • You don’t need to drown it in BBQ sauce. Spice-rubbed, roasted spaghetti squash has a nice flavor with a good balance of sweetness and heat. Try piling a mound of roasted squash on a toasted bun, then top it off with a few splashes of barbecue sauce.
  • Finally, if you’re facing resistance from your family, you can always just use well-sauced squash as a topping for burgers or sausages.
BBQ pulled spaghetti squash sandwich

The BBQ roasted spaghetti squash sandwich


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