Gretchen McKay

Fueling a football team, the Steelers way

Fans line up for hours to see their favorite players at the Steelers training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette

During the Steelers’ summer training camp, the Community Center Dining Hall at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe is the stuff big eaters dream of.

Indecisive souls feeling ravenously hungry could go crazy mulling its many menu choices, which features a cornucopia of lean meats and fish, garden-fresh vegetables, orb after orb of plump seasonal fruit. There also are five Oster blenders waiting to whirl fruit, peanut butter and protein power into liquid meals at a DIY smoothie bar. On the opposite corner of the room, a wood-burning pizza oven pumps out a cheesy 16-inch pie every 10 minutes. The dough is made fresh each morning in the kitchen, and most days there are at least three varieties to choose from.

There’s even a cookie table that would bring a Pittsburgh bride to tears with its tempting display. Last week, it included platters of peanut blossoms, Oreo cookies, chocolate-peanut butter gobs, gingersnaps and chocolate-chip cookies the size of small saucers.

Not that the players attending the 52nd annual camp, which continues through Aug. 18, indulge in those guilty pleasures.

Food is fuel, after all, and a football player’s body is his temple. As such, it’s all about clean eating for today’s training camp attendees, who are better educated than ever before about the cause and effect of diet and nutrition.

So the cookies, notes executive chef Daniel Keeley, who oversees the preparation and serving of meals in the college dining hall operated by Parkhurst Dining Services, are really there for the coaches and ball boys.

A daily menu outside the cafeteria at Steelers training camp in Latrobe.

“The players walk over and say, ‘Ooh,’ and then walk away,”  he says.

That said, a certain long-time veteran was spied licking a vanilla ice cream cone after lunch as he sped away from the cafeteria on the back of a golf cart.

A few years ago, Parkhurst added signs on the buffet tables that spell out the number of carbs, fat, protein and calories included in each dish. Players not only took note but also took it to heart.

“It’s extremely important to put the right fuel in your body,” says veteran linebacker Arthur Moats as he waited outside the locker room for a golf cart to ferry him to lunch. “What you put in is going to dictate what you get out over there,” pointing his thumb toward the practice field.

Mr. Moats, 29, sticks to what he calls the “healthy stuff” — salads, fruits and broiled or baked fish. “And I’m big on hydration,” he says. “You gotta have your waters and Gatorades, especially this time of year when you’re sweating so much and getting banged every day.”

On a day when it is a sweltering 92 degrees on the Westmoreland County campus, he also quaffs Pedialyte to replenish electrolytes and avoid dehydration.

Alejandro Villanueva adheres to a similar diet. “I hate to be this boring, but I eat a lot of fruit, carbs, chocolate milk for fast protein … and a lot of water.” That translates to at least four glasses at each meal. He also piles his plate high with his favorite vegetable — raw spinach. Lunch might include a couple of grilled chicken breasts; dinner is usually some type of fish, plus more chocolate milk. Also, he has bagels as a snack for quick energy.

At 6 feet 9 inches and 320 pounds, the 28-year-old offensive tackle and former Army Ranger can certainly pack it away. While diets and conditioning goals vary among players — some are trying to gain weight and strength after the off-season while others are attempting to lose it to keep light on their feet — NFL players typically consume between 4,000 to 10,000+ calories per day, or about twice as many  (and sometimes more) as the average sedentary adult’s requirement of 1,800 to 2,400 daily calories. For breakfast, for example, Mr. Villanueva eats not just fruit and oatmeal but also a three-egg omelet.

“If I feel hungry, I eat,” he says.

Players, especially the rookies, get guidance from team nutritionist Matt Darnell. But even with that expert advice, fueling their bodies properly can be just as much of a task as memorizing the playbook.

“You have to think about everything that goes into your body because at the end of the day, my body is what helps me perform,” Mr. Moats says. “So I have to treat it with extreme care.”

Linebacker L.J. Fort typically starts the day with an omelet stuffed with sausage, ham, peppers and mushrooms. A sushi lover, he’s especially fond of the salmon and other broiled fishes. But sometimes the best eat also is the simplest.

He gets his carbs up before practice with every elementary school kid’s favorite comfort food: the humble PB&J.

“I just want healthful foods,” he says.

Mr. Villaneuva says it gets a little harder to maintain weight as the season unfolds, which is why he considers himself lucky that his wife,  Madelyn, is such a great cook. Spaghetti carbonara is one of her specialties, and he also eats a lot of red sauce and tuna steak, along with the occasional Fat Heads IPA if he’s out with friends. “It’s pretty balanced,” he says.

The same could be said of the training camp menu as a whole, which Mr. Keeley and executive sous chef Brian Cable start planning in May, soon after graduation. Even though they’re responsible for three meals a day plus snacks, they take great care to keep it as interesting as it is nutritious by offering a rotating menu. For instance, potatoes are always a given but sometimes they’re sweet and shredded, other times they’re Idaho and diced. That way, players don’t get bored over the three weeks of camp.

The chefs typically build their menu off what’s proved popular at the Steelers’ practice facility on the South Side. But it’s never completely set in stone. Offerings are continually tweaked based on players’ likes and specials requests.

Some food items haven’t changed much in the 10 years Mr. Keeley has cooked for the players, such as the burger bar at lunch (with every imaginable topping and a choice of four proteins) and the massive salad bar that anchors the room. But the entrees have generally gotten more “clean.” with a focus on whole foods and quality ingredients. Today’s camp includes lots of whole grains and deep-dark greens such as kale and chard, and the kitchen no longer cooks food in butter. “If we use any fat, it’s extra-virgin olive oil in minimal amounts,” Mr. Keeley said.

Fried food also is a thing of the past, and meat choices now include bison and turkey along with beef and chicken. Fish is broiled, or ground into patties. There’s also a push to use as many local and organic products as possible from producers such as Rivendale Farms in Robinson, which provides maple syrup and honey to sweeten oatmeal and yogurt.

Mr. Keeley estimates the Steelers will go through 40 cases of 24-count Buffalo burgers alone during camp. And that’s just for lunch. Every night for dinner, the kitchen staff cooks some 150 pounds of beef tenderloin or hanger or flank steaks for the team on giant charcoal grills outside the cafeteria.

“They don’t go hungry,” Mr. Cable says.

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Pasta Parmesan With Tomatoes

PG tested

This is quick, easy, totally delicious and has 287 calories per 4-ounce serving. 

1 pound penne

1/4 cup margarine or butter

1 garlic clove, minced

1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for serving

Chopped fresh basil for serving, optional

Red pepper flakes for serving, optional

Cook pasta in 4-quart saucepan according to package directions. Drain, and return to large bowl.

Melt margarine or butter in 10-inch skillet over medium heat until sizzling. Add garlic and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes burst and release their juices to form a sauce, 6 to 8 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss pasta with tomato sauce and Parmesan. Spoon into serving dish. Sprinkle with additional Parmesan cheese, if desired, and garnish with basil and a pinch of red pepper flakes.

Serves 4.

— Executive chef Daniel Keeley, Saint Vincent College

Up your tailgating game by building a better burger

From left: Tomato Jam, Pickled Red Onions, Sparky Corn Relish, and Slow-Roasted Heirloom Cherry Tomatoes. Pam Panchek/Post-Gazette



For the football fan who cooks, tailgates are a beautiful thing.

Unlike other parties where the host feels a lot of pressure to impress, this pre-game festivity can be as fancy or down-home casual as the cook likes or has time for on any given Saturday or Sunday during football season. So long as the conversation and cold bee are flowing, and there’s plenty of great-tasting food to nosh on while you critique the competition, the gathering can’t help but to be a hit.

That said, you still have to come up with a menu that travels well and doesn’t require a ton of work once you hit the stadium parking lot. Not to mention lends itself to eating while standing up in crowded quarters.

Enter the not-so-humble hamburger.

Smothered under a variety of toppings and condiments or nearly naked on the bun, with just a squirt of Heinz ketchup separating meat from bread, burgers are a traditional gameday favorite for Black ‘n’ Gold tailgaters. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a kick-off at Heinz Field that isn’t preceded by the wonderful smell of meat patties sizzling on the grill in the parking lot.

This season, we’d like to help you build an even better burger, with some fresh takes on the standard components. All of them can easily be made ahead with just a few simple ingredients. A few can do double duty, serving as side dishes for bigger appetites or as a tasty dip for chips and/or sliced veggies.

If only making it to the Super Bowl were so easy!

At the heart of every great burger is the patty, so pay attention when it comes to buying the meat. With ground beef, an 80/20 blend of lean to fat is best, says Jim Calato of City Gourmet Catering, which operates the City Deli in the basement of the Koppers Building at Seventh and Grant streets, Downtown; any more fat, and you not only stand a good chance of flare-up during grilling, but also the burger will shrink well beyond the size of the bun.

Tempting as it might be to make and freeze the burgers in advance, the best burgers, says Mr. Calato, are those made fresh right before cooking. “Ice crystals compromise the quality of the meat,” he says. Even more important is a light touch. Overworking the meat when shaping it into patties is a recipe for dense, dry disaster.

For even cooking, make the center of the patty thinner than the edges, as burgers plump when you cook ’em. A little salt sprinkled on the outside will make for an extra-crispy crust.

One way to immediately up your burger game is to experiment with different meats. Below, we offer two patties that go beyond the traditional beef blend. To make them even more tailgate friendly (i.e., easy to balance in one hand) consider shaping them into 3-ounce sliders and serving them on dinner-sized rolls or brioche.

Instead of that . . . traditional beef burger


Pam Panchek/Post-Gazette








Chorizo Burger

PG tested

Don’t worry if you can’t find chorizo in bulk — I simply cut the casings off chorizo links. Add the wine a little at a time to prevent it from getting too soupy.

  • 1 pound chorizo sausage
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground beef
  • 3/4 cup red wine

Mix ingredients together in large bowl. Form meat into 8 individual patties. Place burgers on a hot grill, and cook until desired doneness, about 10 to 12 minutes.

Serve burgers topped with provolone cheese, fried onions, lettuce and chipotle mayonnaise (2 cups mayonnaise blended with 1 tablespoon chopped chipotle peppers in adobo sauce).

Makes 8 burgers.

— Jim Calato, City Gourmet Group


Buffalo Turkey Burgers

PG tested

These lean turkey burgers from Rachael Ray’s new “The Book of Burger” will appeal to the non-beef eaters in the crowd. Rachael likes to fry them on a flat-top griddle or cast-iron pan (it creates a crispier crust), but you also can cook them on a grill. A little blue cheese sauce on the top (recipe below) and you’re good to go.

  • 1 1/2 pounds ground turkey breast
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
  • 1 tablespoon grill seasoning
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4 scallions, whites and greens, finely chopped
  • 1 rib celery, from the heart, finely chopped
  • Vegetable oil, for drizzling
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup hot sauce (such as Frank’s)

In a large bowl, combine first 6 ingredients. Mix thoroughly. Score into 4 equal portions and form them into patties slightly thinner at the center than at the edges for even cooking and to ensure a flat surface (burgers plump as they cook). Drizzle the patties with oil.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Cook burgers, flipping once, 10 to 12 minutes, or until the juices run clear. Remove to a plate. Wipe pan clean and reduce heat to low. Melt butter in pan and stir in hot sauce. Return the burgers to the skillet and turn to coat in the hot sauce-butter mixture.

Makes 4 burgers.

— “The Book of Burger” by Rachael Ray (Atria, June 2012, $24.99)


Instead of that . . . squirt of Heinz ketchup

Tomato Jam

PG tested

Don’t worry about skinning or seeding the tomatoes in this simple jam recipe — they give the final product texture. A savory substitution for ketchup, the jam also tastes delicious slathered inside a grilled cheese sandwich or dolloped on top of meatloaf.

  • 1 1/2 pounds good ripe tomatoes (Roma are best), cored and coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon grated or minced fresh ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 jalapeno or other pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced, or red pepper flakes or cayenne to taste

Combine all ingredients in a heavy medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture has consistency of thick jam, about 1 hour 15 minutes.

Taste and adjust seasoning, then cool and refrigerate until ready to use; this will keep at least a week.

Makes about 1 pint.

— Mark Bittman, The New York Times


Slow-Roasted Heirloom Tomatoes

PG tested

Barbecue isn’t the only thing that benefits from slow and low cooking. This super-simple preparation brings out the tomatoes natural sweetness. The balsamic syrup is addictive.

  • 1 1/2 pounds heirloom cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 8 small shallots, peeled
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons agave syrup (I substituted maple syrup)
  • 1 stem fresh rosemary
  • 1/2 cup dried bread crumbs, toasted (optional)

Preheat oven to 225 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and place tomatoes, cut-side up, on the pan. Sprinkle shallots and garlic around the tomatoes. Drizzle them with oil and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Roast until tomatoes are shrunken and sweet, about 2 hours, switching the pan positions after an hour. Transfer them and any juices on the pan to a medium bowl.

In a small saucepan, combine vinegar, agave syrup and rosemary and bring to a boil. Cook for about 5 minutes over medium heat, until liquids reduce to 1/4 cup and form a thick syrup. Remove rosemary with a fork and season the syrup with a pinch of salt.

Toss tomatoes with bread crumbs to soak up the juices, if desired. Drizzle the syrup over the tomatoes and serve.

Makes about 1 cup of roasted tomatoes.

— “Big Vegan” by Robin Asbell (Chronicle, 2011)


Instead of that . . . dill pickle spear

Homemade Bread-and-butter pickles

PG tested

These are for sweet pickle lovers.

  • 1 pound cucumbers, sliced 1/4-inch thick (“pickling” or kirby cucumbers work best)
  • 1 large sweet onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup kosher salt
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds (if ground, use 1 teaspoon)
  • 1/4 teaspoon celery seed

In a medium bowl, combine the cucumbers, onion and salt. Mix well. Cover the mixture with ice. Let stand at room temperature for two hours. In a pot, bring sugar, vinegar and spices to a boil. Rinse cucumbers and onions with water and drain well. Add to vinegar mixture and bring almost back to a boil. Remove from heat and cool. You can store the pickles in an airtight container for up to three weeks in the fridge. They will begin tasting pickled in just a couple hours.

Makes about 4 cups pickles, filling a 1-quart jar



Sparky Corn Relish

PG tested

You don’t have to be vegan, or even vegetarian, to love this tangy corn relish. Spoon the leftovers onto grilled hot dogs, or use it to add kick to Mexican or Tex-Mex cuisine. You also could stir it into corn bread.

  • 1/3 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 1/2 cups corn kernels, fresh or frozen
  • 1/4 cup diced red onion
  • 1/4 cup diced and seeded red and green bell peppers

In a medium-sized saucepan, combine vinegar, sugar, mustard and turmeric. Bring to a slow boil over medium heat. Add corn, onion and bell pepper and simmer for 5 minutes. Serve hot, cold or at room temperature.

Makes 11/2 cups.

— “Grilling Vegan Style” by John Schlimm (DaCapo, May 2012, $20)


Instead of that . . . leaf of iceberg lettuce

Apple-Lime-Cilantro Slaw

PG tested

This slaw pairs well with a turkey or chicken burger.

  • 2 Granny Smith apples, cored with the skin on
  • Zest and juice of 2 limes
  • 1 small head of savoy cabbage, shredded
  • 4 scallions, chopped
  • 1/2 bunch cilantro, rough cut
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • Salt and pepper

Core apples and cut into matchsticks. Coat with lime juice. Toss in a bowl with cabbage, scallions, lime zest and cilantro.

Make dressing by combining mayonnaise, sour cream, remaining lime juice and sugar. Add salt and pepper to taste. Coat slaw with dressing.

Serves 6 to 8.

— Jim Calato, City Gourmet Group


Frisee salad

PG tested

Don’t let the slightly bitter taste of frisee (curly leaf endive) put you off — when paired with salty bacon, it is nothing short of divine.

  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 thinly sliced shallot
  • 2 tablespoons bacon drippings
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 bunch frisee, washed and torn

Whisk together mustard, olive oil, shallot and bacon drippings. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add frisee. Makes enough for 4 to 6 burgers.

— Food Network Magazine


Homemade Bread-and-Butter Pickles and Frisee Salad. Pam Panchek/Post-Gazette
Instead of that . . . slice of raw onion

Grilled Green-Onion Mayonnaise

PG tested

This easy mayo will keep in the fridge for up to 3 days, and has a nice, slightly charred flavor. Also tasty on fish sandwiches.

  • 8 green onions, scallions or small bulb onions
  • Olive oil, for brushing
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise
  • Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh basil

Prepare a medium-hot grill. Place a perforated grill rack over the grill grate. Brush the onions with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Place scallions on the perforated grill rack and grill, turning every minute or so, until the onions get good grill marks. Let cool.

Chop the onions and combine with mayonnaise, lemon zest, lemon juice and basil until well blended. Serve right away or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Makes about 2/3 cup.

— “The Gardener & The Grill: The Bounty of the Garden Meets the Sizzle of the Grill” by Karen Adler and Judith Fertig (Running Press, May 2012, $20)


Pickled Red Onions

PG tested

This tart burger topping take just 5 minutes to prepare, but the flavor is boundless. Stir the onions into potato salad, layer them in quesadillas, sprinkle them on salad greens or use them as a garnish for hors d’oeuvres.

  • 1/3 cup cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 cinnamon stick
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 red jalapeno chile
  • 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1/4 pound red onions, julienned

Heat all ingredients except onions with 1 cup water to a simmer in a saucepan. Simmer for 5 minutes and remove from heat. Pour the pickling liquid over the onions in a mixing bowl and let cool to room temperature. Reserve the onions in the liquid until you are ready to use them. Onions will hold refrigerated for 7 to 10 days.

Makes 3/4 cup, or enough for 6 burgers.




“Instead of that . . . “boring slice of American cheese”

Beer-Cheese Sauce

PG tested

Any beer will do in this recipe (I borrowed a Michelob Ultra from my neighbor), though the better the brew, the better the sauce. I used the leftovers for mac and cheese; it also would be good as a chip dip or drizzled on nachos.

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
  • 3/4 cup beer
  • 1/2 cup half-and-half
  • 1 1/2 cups grated sharp cheddar
  • 1 tablespoon horseradish

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour and mustard powder; cook, stirring, 2 to 3 minutes (do not brown). Whisk in beer; bring to a simmer, then whisk in half-and-half. Simmer, whisking, until thickened, about 4 minutes. Stir in grated cheddar and horseradish.

— Food Network Magazine


Blue cheese sauce

PG tested

A perfect topping for your Buffalo burger, or as a dip for crudites.

  • 1 ounce Danish blue cheese, crumbled (about 1/4 cup)
  • 2 tablespoons lowfat buttermilk
  • 1 tablespoon light mayonnaise
  • Pinch of sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Mash blue cheese with the back of a fork in a small dish. Stir in remaining ingredients. Slather on top of burger buns.

Makes enough for 4 burgers.

— Shape magazine (