Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Autumn Salad with Butternut Squash, Apples, Cranberries & Candied Pecans

A healthy & gorgeous autumn salad featuring vibrant seasonal ingredients like roasted butternut squash, dried cranberries, crisp apple, leafy greens, and quick candied pecans all tossed in a tangy apple cider vinaigrette. Bring this salad to all your fall gatherings to wow your friends & family! (gluten-free, grain-free & vegetarian) 

Autumn Salad with Butternut Squash, Apples, Cranberries & Candied Pecans

When I visited Breckenridge back in September, I created this big leafy salad to serve at a potluck gathering. I chose some of my favorite salad toppings as the core elements: semi-sweet apple, sharp cheddar cheese & apple cider vinaigrette. Apple + sharp cheddar = perfection.

To make it taste even better and up the eye candy factor with lots of vibrant colors, I added other seasonal ingredients like savory roasted butternut squash, dried cranberries, and stovetop candied pecans.

The salad was a huge hit! Everyone loved it and several raved about the tender butternut squash, crunchy pecan & tangy/sweet apple cider vinaigrette combo. In fact, one of my friends told me this recipe inspired her to make & eat more salads at home with different variations. That makes me so happy to hear!

I actually made it twice while I was in Colorado, so I've included pictures here from both versions. One used candied pecans & thinly sliced apple (my preferred version) and the other used regular toasted pecans & diced apple that I mixed into the vinaigrette.

Autumn Salad with Butternut Squash, Apples, Cranberries & Candied Pecans

Ingredients For The Autumn Salad

The best part about this salad is the contrasting mix of textures, flavors, and colors from the seasonal fall ingredients. Each bite has a blend of soft, crunchy, sweet, tangy, tart, and bitter taste/textures that beautifully complement each other.

Here's a breakdown of the individual components needed for the salad along with ideas for swaps if necessary:
  • Leafy Baby Greens: This provides the slightly bitter element and is the base for the salad. I like to use a mix of baby greens such as spinach, kale & arugula (it's a bit peppery) but you can use a single green if you like. 

  • Savory Roasted Butternut Squash: This is the tender, soft element in the salad. It adds a vibrant orange color, a pop of natural sweetness, and a hint of fragrant rosemary, thyme & oregano. Not feeling butternut squash? Roasted acorn squash, delicata squash, or pumpkin would make a good substitute.

  • Candied Pecans: This is the crunchy, warm spiced & slightly sweet element. Warning: they're addicting while still warm. Make sure to save some for the salad. ;) Fortunately, you can fix a batch in only 10 minutes on the stovetop while the butternut squash is roasting. Don't want the extra sugar? Skip the candy element (my recipe uses maple syrup & coconut sugar) & simply toast the pecans in a skillet for a few minutes. 

  • Sharp Cheddar Cheese: This provides some of the creamy, healthy fats. Sharp cheddar pairs super well with fresh apple, but this salad would also be yummy with tangy goat cheese, an herbed harvati, aged gouda, crumbled gorgonzola, or blue cheese. NOTE: If you want to make this salad dairy-free or vegan, simply omit the cheese and you're good to go.

Autumn Salad with Butternut Squash, Apples, Cranberries & Candied Pecans
  • Dried Cranberries: This adds a bit of sweetness, tartness, and chew to the salad + a lovely pink/red hue. Try to find cranberries sweetened with apple juice if you can to reduce the sugar content. I can't imagine using anything else here, but you can also swap this with dried cherries or golden raisins. 

  • Sliced Apple: This is the crunchy, juicy, semi-sweet element of the salad. I prefer apples that are more on the tart side (I think Red Delicious are gross). My favorites are Honeycrisp, Braeburn, and Pink Lady. Another good option if you're serving this to apple haters, is sliced pear or even jicama for a mild crunch. 

  • Red Onion: This adds spiciness, crunch, and a purple hue to the salad. If you're serving this to onion haters you can easily omit it or swap it for a milder onion like green onion or chives instead.

  • Apple Cider Vinaigrette: This is the vessel that brings the whole salad together. It's tangy, yet sweet and the healthy fat (olive oil) in it helps your body absorb all the fat-soluble vitamins in those leafy greens. It only takes a few minutes to make it from scratch so you can do it while the squash is roasting or the pecans are cooling. No apple cider vinegar on hand? Swap it with a maple balsamic vinaigrette, cranberry vinaigrette, or lemon/orange vinaigrette.
Autumn Salad with Butternut Squash, Apples, Cranberries & Candied Pecans

How to Make This Autumn Themed Salad + Prep-Ahead Tips

Most of you will probably fix this leafy salad right before the meal, so I'm going to explain the best way to make everything (squash, pecans, dressing & salad) all in one go.

However, it also makes a wonderful appetizer, side dish, or main course for fall & winter holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, so I'm giving you some make-ahead tips for times when you're busy or want to make healthy meals ahead.

Fixing It All In One Go

1. Prep the butternut squash & pop it in the oven. While that's roasting (it takes about 30 minutes), you'll prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Next, make the candied pecans on the stovetop. They come together in a quick 10 minutes (your kitchen will smell heavenly), then you'll spread the hot nuts (hehe) across a baking sheet lined with parchment paper to cool (this happens quickly).

3.  Meanwhile, make the homemade apple cider vinaigrette. Combine all ingredients in a large glass jar (these wide-mouth French glass jars are pretty) or some kind of container with a lid (this only takes a few minutes). Shake it like crazy to emulsify the oil and set it aside to let the flavors develop. I always like to make my vinaigrettes with a lid so I can shake it right before serving since the vinegar & oil separate so easily (that's what happens when you don't have stabilizers like the store-bought ones).

4. Then, do the quick prep work for the salad. Grate the cheese, peel & slice the onions, measure out the cranberries, and slice the apples (toss them with fresh lemon juice if you plan on doing this more then 30 minutes ahead).

5. By this time, the squash is out of the oven and the candied pecans have solidified (they may still be a bit warm but that's okay), so it's time to assemble the salad following the directions below. Instead of scattering all the ingredients across the top of the salad, I prefer to group them together for a nice presentation until it's mealtime.

6. Serving time! Right before you're ready to eat, toss all the ingredients together and serve immediately. Note: You can either combine the dressing with the salad now or serve the vinaigrette on the side and let folks add as much or as little as they want (my preference in case there are leftovers so the greens don't get soggy).

golden retriever hoping to get some autumn salad
Just For Fun: My friend Laura's dog, Leko, who was patiently waiting for me to give him
some food while I shot the pics for this salad recipe. :) 
Make Ahead Tips

The Day Before The Meal: Roast the butternut squash, make the apple cider vinaigrette, grate the cheese and slice the onions. Keep everything in separate containers with a tight-fitting lid until you're ready to use. Right before serving, gently reheat the butternut squash in the oven or on the stove until warm (it's still tasty cold but I prefer it warm).

A Few Hours Before The Meal: Make the candied pecans and let them solidify, My stovetop recipe makes glossy, caramel-like candied pecans which start to crystalize on day 4 or 5 so their texture is best the first two days. If desired, assemble all components of the salad except for the squash, pecans, dressing, and apples and store in the fridge (in the same container you plan on serving it in).

Right Before Serving: Slice the apples (we don't want them to go brown) and assemble the salad. Toss the dressing with everything else or serve it on the side.

Meal Prep: If you're making this salad for normal meals & not a gathering, you can layer all the ingredients (toss the apples in some lemon juice so they don't brown as quickly) except for the dressing in large glass jars and store in the fridge until you're ready to use. This should keep 4-5 days (keep in mind that the candied nuts will start to crystallize by then but they will still taste the same).

More Fall Recipes To Pair With This Autumn Salad:

autumn salad, fall salad, salad with butternut squash, salad with apples, salad with candied pecans, salad with cranberries
side dish
Yield: 6-8
Autumn Salad with Butternut Squash, Apples, Cranberries & Candied Pecans

Autumn Salad with Butternut Squash, Apples, Cranberries & Candied Pecans

prep time: 20 minscook time: 30 minstotal time: 50 mins
A healthy & gorgeous autumn salad featuring vibrant seasonal ingredients like roasted butternut squash, dried cranberries, crisp apple, leafy greens, and quick candied pecans all tossed in a tangy apple cider vinaigrette. Bring this salad to all your fall gatherings to wow your friends & family! (gluten-free, grain-free & vegetarian)


  • 8 -10 oz of organic baby greens (like spinach, arugula, kale, chard, etc.) 
  • 1 1/2 cups of savory roasted butternut squash
  • 1 cup of stovetop candied pecans OR toasted pecans 
  • 1/2 a small red onion 
  • 1/2 cup of dried cranberries
  • 3/4 cup of grated sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1 small organic semi-sweet apple (like Honeycrisp, Pink Lady or Braeburn)
For serving:


  1. Prep the savory roasted butternut squash and pop it in the oven. It'll take about 15 minutes to prep & 30 minutes to bake, which gives you plenty of time to fix the rest of the ingredients for the salad. 
  2. While the squash is roasting, fix the stovetop candied pecans. This takes about 10 minutes, then you can spread them on some parchment paper to cool while you do make the rest of the salad. 
  3. Combine all the ingredients for the homemade apple cider vinaigrette in a glass jar with a lid and shake well to emulsify the olive oil. Set this aside to let the flavors develop.
  4. If you're using block cheese, grate it now, then peel & thinly slice the red onion, measure out the cranberries, and thinly slice the cored apple. 
  5. By now the squash should be done and the candied pecans solidified. Assemble the salad by pouring the baby greens into a large serving bowl, then place each ingredient (onion, cheese, squash, nuts, apple slices, cranberries) on top of the greens in its own pile (see top pic for reference). If desired, you can fan out the apple slices to make them look pretty. 
  6. Right before eating, toss the salad to mix up all the ingredients and serve with the vinaigrette on the side (shake it up again) so folks can control the amount of dressing. Alternately, you can mix the vinaigrette into the salad but be warned that it will make any leftovers soggy & wilt the salad quicker.  Optional: sprinkle any apple slices with Ceylon cinnamon and garnish the salads with cracked black pepper. 


If you want to make the homemade components for this salad all in one go before assembling everything for the final dish (roasted squash, candied pecans, salad dressing) it'll take 50ish minutes from start to finish to make the ingredients and then create the salad. You can certainly prep several of the ingredients ahead of time (earlier in the day or the day beforehand). Check the post above for more detailed tips!

If you plan on serving this as a main course and want more protein, top the salad with hard-boiled eggs, roasted chicken, cast iron skillet steak, parmesan chicken, or pan-seared salmon.
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A healthy & gorgeous autumn salad featuring vibrant seasonal ingredients like roasted butternut squash, cranberries, apple, baby greens & candied pecans all tossed in a tangy apple cider vinaigrette. Bring this to all your fall gatherings (plusThanksgiving & Christmas celebrations) to wow your friends & family! (gluten-free, grain-free & vegetarian)

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