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: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 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


On the road with the Steelers: Dallas

The Dallas skyline at night. Dallas CVB photo.

Dallas has long been the No. 1 visitor destination in Texas, and for good reason. Not only is it a mecca for sports — it’s home to five professional sports teams, including the Cowboys, who take on the Steelers Dec. 16 — but the country’s ninth-largest city also is pretty serious about shopping. It gave birth to the first Neiman Marcus (in 1907), America’s oldest planned shopping center (Highland Park Village) and the upscale, glass-vaulted Dallas Galleria mall, modeled after the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, Italy.

Dallas also is famous for its arts scene, boasting the largest contiguous urban arts district in the United States — it stretches 17 blocks, covering close to 70 acres — that includes more than 115 public pieces of art on display.

You also can get a pretty decent meal here, and not just the expected Tex-Mex or barbecue, thanks to celebrity chefs such as Dean Fearing and Stephan Pyles, the first person from the Southwest to win a James Beard Award for “Best Chef” and the first Texas native inducted into “Who’s Who of Food and Wine in America.”

Getting there

The closest airport to downtown is Dallas Love Field (DAL), but there are no direct flights from Pittsburgh. It’s served by just three airlines, including Southwest. You also can fly into Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW); prices start at about $220 roundtrip on major airlines. But again, it’s not going to be quick — only American Airlines offers a direct, 21/2-hour flight.

From DFW, a taxi to downtown will set you back about $40, or $27 to Cowboys Stadium (stadium.dallascowboys.com) in nearby Arlington. The Trinity Railway Express (trinityrailwayexpress.org) offers rail service every day but Sunday between the CentrePort/DFW Airport Station and Dallas Union Station; the trip takes about 40 minutes and costs $2.50. A taxi from DAL costs $18, a shuttle $19, and you also can take a bus or commuter rail (dart.org/riding/lovefield.asp).

Cowboys Stadium is in nearby Arlington.

Once in town, the free McKinney Avenue Trolley (mata.org) takes visitors in restored antique electric trolley cars from the Dallas Arts District throughout the Uptown area with its restaurants, pubs, boutique hotels and shops. Unfortunately, there’s no public transportation between downtown Dallas and the stadium.

Neighborhood roundup

Dallas’ charms stretches well beyond the beating heart of downtown. Just a couple blocks from the central business district is the city’s oldest entertainment area, the 55-acre West End Historic District (dallaswestend.org); for art lovers, the 19-block Dallas Arts District (thedallasartsdistrict.org) delights with its mix of art galleries, concert halls, architecture and public sculpture. It’s just west of the Central Expressway.

In South Dallas, the Bishop Arts District (bishopartsdistrict.weebly.com) is home to funky boutiques, coffee shops and some of the city’s most sought-after restaurants. For live music and emerging visual and creative artists, head to Deep Ellum (deepellumtexas.com) immediately east of downtown, known around town as the “birthplace of jazz and the blues” — though this also is the place to hear music as varied as rock ‘n’ roll to hip-hop to alternative. It has the city’s largest collection of commercial storefronts from the 20th century. Victory Park, conversely (victorypark.com), is a master planned development with trendy, 21st-century shops, nightlife and high-end apartments. Once home to a dump, a meat-packing plant and an old power plant, it’s the largest brownfield project in the United States.

A good night’s rest

With more than 73,000 rooms in the metropolitan area, there’s something for every budget and taste. One of the most famous and luxurious hotels is the five-star Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek (rosewoodhotels.com; $335 and up), which was built in 1923-25 for cotton mogul Sheppard King and his family in the Italian Renaissance style and features 143 spacious rooms with balconies and patios. At Hotel ZaZa in the Uptown area (hotelzaza.com; $262 and up), the “regular” rooms feature one-of-a-kind works of art and Mediterranean accents. Or, choose one of its 16 “concept” suites (the Shag-a-delic room has bean bag chairs, shag carpet and a round bed) or the themed “Magnificent Seven Suites,” the choices of which include a two-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath Rock Star that goes for $1,000 a night midweek and $2,500 on weekends.

The lobby of the Magnolia Hotel, Dallas.

 

Pockets not that deep? The boutique, 29-story Magnolia Hotel Dallas (magnoliahotels.com; $89 and up) was the city’s first skyscraper, and the first high-rise in the United States to have air conditioning. The 1,001-room Omni Dallas Hotel near the Convention Center is a year old, and sleek and contemporary with floor-to-ceiling windows. (omnihotels.com; $150 and up). At the Embassy suites (3 locations, embassysuites.com) the price ($118 and up) includes a made-to-order breakfast and evening happy hours.

What to see and do

For many, Dallas will forever be linked with President John F. Kennedy’s ill-fated trip there in 1963, so it’s no surprise a popular tourist attraction is the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in the West End Historic District, in a warehouse at 411 Elm St. formerly known as the Texas School Book Depository ($16, including audio guide; jfk.org). In addition to JFK’s assassination, its collection of more than 40,000 items explores the legacy of his life and presidency and the culture of the 1960s. The John F. Kennedy Memorial at Main and Market streets also draws thousands annually, as does Dealey Plaza National Historic Landmark, one of only two extant presidential assassination sites in the U.S.

JFK Museum, Dallas.

Anchoring its famous Arts District is the sprawling Dallas Museum of Art (dallasmuseumofart.org; $10 until Jan. 21, 2013, when it’s free; closed Monday) and its 24,000 works of art, including art of the ancient Americas. Nasher Sculpture Center at 2001 Flora St. (nashersculpturecenter.org; $10, or $16 with joint admission to DMA) has more than 300 modern and contemporary sculptures paired with 20th-century paintings and drawings, from masters such as Rodin and modern artists, such as James Turrell. The Crow Collection of Asian Art (free; closed Mon.; crowcollection.com) is dedicated to the arts and cultures of China, Japan, India and Southeast Asia while The Meadows Museum ($10 adults, free after 5 p.m. Thurs, and closed Monday; smu.edu/meadowsmuseum) on the campus of Southern Methodist University boasts one of the finest collections of Spanish art outside of Spain.

If you don’t mind stretching your legs, there’s a self-guided 3.3-mile Public ArtWalk Dallas starting at Nasher Center that highlights 30 pieces of art and architecture. You can find a map at publicartwalkdallas.org.

Rather take a walk back in history? Dallas Heritage Village at 1515 S. Harwood St. ($9, dallasheritagevillage.org) features “living breathing Texas history” — from the frontier days to the early 1900s.

Holiday shopping, activities

 Galleria Dallas (galleriadallas.com) brings hundreds of national/international retailers, specialty boutiques and world-class restaurants together under one glitzy roof. It’s also home to an indoor ice skating rink ($9 admission, plus $3 for skates) that during the holiday season boasts the country’s tallest indoor Christmas tree — a 95-foot beauty decorated with more than 10,000 ornaments, a quarter-million twinkling lights and a 10-foot, 100-pound LED star. The mall is accessible through the DART Rail & Bus System (DART.org).

If you’d rather shop downtown, the Main Street District is home to the original Neiman Marcus store (1618 Main St.) and its featured designers. Another pure Texas experience is getting measured for a pair of custom cowboy boots or Charlie 1 Horse hat at Wild Bill’s Western Wear (311 North Market St.) in the historic West End.

For vintage finds or funky one-of-a-kind items, head to the Bishop Arts District, where shops such as the Artisan’s Collective and Indie Genius, an indoor marketplace featuring jewelry, locally grown coffee, original art, handmade décor and clothing (beindiegenius.typepad.com), are sure to tempt.

When your arms are full of packages, take a horse-drawn Circle G carriage ride ($160/hour for up to six people; circlegcarriage.com) through the West End. Or better yet, deposit them in your hotel room and jump on a Segway tour ($86.36; dallassegwaytours.com) of Katy Trail, a biking/walking/inline skating trail that follows the path of the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad through Uptown, or Dealey Plaza.

Exceptional dining

There’s no shortage of great restaurants in Dallas. If you’re in the mood for Mexican, Mr. Mesero, 4444 McKinney Ave., was named one of D magazine’s best of 2012 for its “Mexican classics done with panache”; most entrees are under $10. If BBQ is more your thing, Will Fleischman of Lockhart Smokehouse, 400 West Davis St. in the Bishop Arts District, recently was named one of the South’s top 10 pitmasters by Southern Living — order at the counter (half-pound of brisket costs $7.50), then snag a seat at the bar or a table.

A must-have dish at the roadside Off-site Kitchen at 2226 Irving Blvd. is the 48-hour cracked pepper brisket sandwich ($6.95), though the Angus burgers are pretty darn good, too. Sissy’s Southern Kitchen & Bar, 2929 Henderson Ave., features top-notch Southern cuisine such as shrimp and grits, chicken-fried steak and buttermilk pecan pie, along with a vodka “tea bar.” Adding glam is owner/chef Lisa Garza, who was a contestant on the fourth season of “The Next Food Network Star.”

Also fun, if a bit touristy, is Gilley’s Dallas complex (gilleysdallas.com), which moviegoers will recognize as the central location of “Urban Cowboy.” In its Jack Daniel’s Saloon, most everything on the menu is less than $10. Here’s where you also can ride a mechanical bull and listen to live Texas music.

For more upscale dining, you can’t miss with Fearing’s in the Ritz-Carlton or with Oak at 1628 Oak Lawn Ave. in the Design District, which is one of the 50 finalists for Bon Appetit’s list of the 10 best new restaurants in the country in 2012. Stephan Pyles in the Arts District serves “new millennium” Southwestern cuisine.

Steelers, Texas-Style

Malarkey’s Tavern in North Dallas (4460 Trinity Mills Road, malarkeystavern.com) is throwing the city’s “biggest & baddest Steeler fan rally” on Saturday, with autographs, a merchandise booth and Steelers film highlights. They’re also hosting a post-game party to celebrate the Steelers’ assured victory.

More information

Go to visitdallas.com or call 1-214-571-1000.

 

This is Pittsburgh food: Tailgating – Sunday dinner, Pittsburgh style

Tailgating before Steelers’ home games at Heinz Field is a Pittsburgh tradition. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

 

Lynn Cauley grew up in a household that bled black and gold during football season, so as an adult, there never was a question she wouldn’t carry on the Steelers tradition.

“I came to all the games when I was a kid,” recalls Mrs. Cauley, of Park Place, whose sportswriter father, Carl Hughes, covered the Steelers for The Pittsburgh Press before becoming assistant manager of Kennywood Park in 1956.

But even good friends are a little surprised at just how far she and husband, Jim, go in the days and hours leading up to a home game at Heinz Field.

A rousing tailgate isn’t just a tradition for the East End couple. It’s practically a religion, and not just because most of their parking lot-parties unfold early on Sunday morning, when the faithful of another kind are settling into pews at church.

Long before the gates to Gold A swing open at 8 a.m., the Cauleys are preparing for the pre-game celebration, which for the last few years has drawn more than 100 friends, family and business associates. Up at 4:45 a.m. to put food in the oven, the couple is on the road with a packed car by 7:15. To dawdle, says Mrs. Cauley, would be a rookie mistake.

“I know, we’re nuts,” she says, laughing. “But it’s first-come, first-served.”

In this town, they’ve got plenty of equally crazy company. Pittsburgh prides itself on being the Tailgate Capital of the World. Rain or shine, blistering heat or blustering snow, each of the stadium’s 22 neighboring lots is packed during home games with thousands of fans. They bring with them an amazing display of pre-game munchies.

Even before many of us have had our morning coffee, the intoxicating aroma of kielbasa, pierogies, wings and burgers on the hibachi fills the air. More than a few fans lay out elaborate tablecloth buffets, complete with fancy cocktails and gourmet eats. On one recent Sunday, Rocco Ferrante, a Mount Washington native who now lives in Princeton, N.J., could be found deep-frying, right on the pavement, not just a turkey, but also a duck.

And don’t forget dessert. Brownies, cakes, pies, bowls of candy and assorted cookies.

“Pittsburgh’s the best because it’s such an ethnic town,” says Mrs. Cauley. “All those family traditions are tied to the tailgate.”

She admits throwing such a big party takes lots of preparation. Wednesday finds her shopping for paper products. On Thursday, the marathon cooking sessions begin, starting with sauce that will serve as the base for her husband’s “signature” hot sausage sandwiches. They’ll make enough to fill six trays.

“The secret is to grill it,” says Mr. Cauley, who when he isn’t cooking is a sales executive at Ceiling Systems Distributors, a construction supply company.

His wife’s specialty, meanwhile, is another Pittsburgh classic: sweet banana peppers stuffed with a spicy mixture of sausage, cheese and bread crumbs, and then baked in red sauce.

“They’re homegrown,” she says of the long yellow peppers, proudly holding up a box of the veggies she brought to a recent tailgate for all to see.

Before last Sunday’s game against Washington, the menu — determined each week by the weather, and emailed to invited guests along with parking directions — also included fried chicken, honey-baked ham, meatball hoagies, two kinds of potatoes and several desserts. Helping to wash it down were pineapple vodka martinis.

There also was plenty of variety at Louis Lipps’ tailgate along Art Rooney Avenue. Once a year, aided by friends, the former Steelers wide receiver cooks up a storm to raise money for the Flight 93 Memorial Fund. It’s a Southern delight, offering invited guests everything from fried catfish to seafood etouffe to Cajun beef stew to gumbo and jambalaya . . . or as he puts it, “something you can’t get up here.

“I know Pittsburgh made me famous,” he adds, “but I’m New Orleans born and bred.”

Rob Castille’s tailgate for about 20 friends was a bit more traditional, serving up real-deal pierogies sauteed in butter and onions, big bowls of Buffalo chicken dip and hot wings. Though the Greensburg native did have one thing on the menu you might not find elsewhere: drunken gummy bears.

“They’re soaked in vodka, and they’re delicious!” his friend Renee Heininger of Fox Chapel declared. “What else could you ask for?”


 

Stuffed banana peppers

This recipe can be prepared ahead of time, and kept in the freezer.

  • 20 banana peppers
  • 2 pounds sweet Italian sausage
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella
  • 1 1/2 cups Romano cheese
  • 2 cups bread crumbs
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 to 2 24-ounce jars Classico Italian Sausage and Pepper sauce
  • 8-ounce package Kraft shredded Italian Five Cheese

Cut off top of the banana pepper. Slice one side of pepper lengthways. Clean out seeds, rinse pepper, turn upside down on paper towel to dry. Repeat with remaining peppers.

In a large bowl, mix ingredients through salt and pepper.

Pour Classico Sauce to cover bottom of 10-by-12 inch chafing dish pan.

Gently part sliced pepper and generously fill with combined ingredients. Place pepper in chafing dish. Repeat with remaining peppers. There will be 2 layers when complete.

Cover top of peppers with sauce and sprinkle with 8 ounces of Italian Five Cheese.

Bake for 1 hour in a preheated 350-degree oven.

Serves 6 to 8.

— Lynn Cauley, Park Place


 

Signature Hot Sausage

48 hot sausages (Costco and/or Sam’s)

  • 2 24-ounce jars Classico Italian Sausage and Peppers sauce
  • 2 24-ounce jars Classico Spicy Tomato and Basil sauce
  • 3 large green peppers
  • 3 large onions (yellow or Spanish)
  • 4 large-sized banana peppers
  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter
  • Seasoned salt
  • 2 8-ounce packages fresh sliced white mushrooms
  • 36 Breadworks sausage rolls (some prefer no bun)

Grill sausage for 10 minutes on each side under medium flame/temperature. Remove from grill pad, then dry with paper towel to remove excess grease. Place in 2 chafing dish-size aluminum pans.

Add 1 jar of each Classico sauce into the pans with the hot sausage.

Cut green peppers into 21/2-inch long strips (3/4 inch wide). Cut banana peppers into 1-inch circles down the length of the pepper. Cut the onions in half and then into 1-inch sections.

Combine the peppers and onions in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the 1 stick of butter and cook for 12 minutes. Season to taste with seasoned salt. Drain excess butter from skillet and evenly divide and spread the onions and peppers onto the 2 pans of hot sausage.

Cover and bake the hot sausage pans in a 325-degree oven for 1 hour. Remove the cover and put one package of mushrooms in each pan. Cover again and place the hot sausage pans back into the oven for an additional 25 minutes at 275 degrees. When sausage is done baking, slice rolls, and enjoy a signature hot sausage sandwich — it’s the best sausage sandwich in Pittsburgh.

Serves a crowd.

— Jim Cauley, Park Place

 

Training meals: A look inside the Steelers’ training kitchen

Lunch plates portioned to three different appetites. Gretchen McKay

 

They look invincible. Yet beneath those steely, confident exteriors, the Pittsburgh Steelers struggle just like the rest of us schlubs — at least when it comes to their diets.

The underweight players are attempting to pack on a few extra pounds. The heavier ones are working on losing some. And those who fit into their black and gold uniforms just right are doing their best to maintain.

Not an easy proposition when everyone’s eating three meals a day of the same food, practice leaves you starving and everything on the all-you-can-eat buffet tables looks soooo delicious.

Actually, it got a whole lot easier for players this year at the Steelers’ 47th annual summer training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, which wraps up its three-week run tomorrow with an open practice from 3 to 5 p.m.

Those who cook for the team before the season commences initiated a new program that makes meal portioning as easy as filling Heinz Field with fans on a Sunday afternoon.

Rather than guess how a plate of kielbasa and sauteed veggies stacks up nutritionally to one that holds homemade pierogies or a piece of grilled fish — or in the case of those with the biggest appetites or caloric requirements, all of the above — a sign at the head of the buffet line spells it out for them in black and white: number of calories per serving, plus total grams of fat, protein and carbohydrates. But what really drives the point home is a side-by-side comparison of actual plates.

It’s one thing to mentally measure up that perfect portion, but it’s another thing entirely to see it right there in front of you, down to the exact tablespoon of steamed rice or ounce of grilled turkey. Do you want to gain, maintain or wane? Simply choose the serving suggestions that correspond.

“It’s a reference for them,” said general manager Reggie Esmi, who with executive chef Rick Laskie oversees the preparation and serving of meals in the college dining hall, which is operated by Parkhurst Dining Services. “That way, they know the number of carbs, fat, protein and calories before they build their plates.”

Also new this year is an emphasis on performance drinks. They’re made with fresh fruits such as pomegranate or kiwi and given a boost with flax seed.

Because they’re so much bigger than your average Joe, NFL players often are thought of as meat-and-potatoes kind of guys. What they really like is their vegetables — along with whole grains such as quinoa and wheat berries. That’s because like most professional athletes, they have become much more conscious in recent years of the connection between healthy eating and performance. In order to maintain the high energy levels for pre-season training and games, they fuel their bodies with all the healthful, nutrient-rich food they can get.

There’s still a fair amount of pasta on the daily menu, said Chef Laskie, who has been cooking for the team for 10 years. There also are higher-fat dishes such as ribs and hot wings (a favorite late-night snack). But not as much as you might think.

Today, fish — loaded with omega 3 fatty acids, which helps bodies recover after strenuous exercise — is a big crowd pleaser, along with lean grilled meats, fresh fruits and a wide array of vegetables, cooked and otherwise. Most meals include a trip to the massive salad bar in the middle of the dining room, where at least three greens vie for attention along with eight vegetables and array of homemade dressings and bacon bits.

One of the most popular menu items, says Chef Laskie, who graduated from Westmoreland County Community College’s culinary program, is the turkey burger. Served with a zesty Asian-style slaw, it’s made from a mixture of ground, brined turkey breast and chicken thigh, and cooked on a charcoal grill right outside the dining room. It’s not unusual for the team and their guests to go through more than 1,000 a week.

“I can’t eat a lot of stuff in the summer, but I eat the turkey burgers every day,” said veteran backup quarterback Byron Leftwich.

The Steelers love their Thai turkey burgers at training camp, served with a crunchy Asian slaw. Gretchen McKay

Another team favorite is the wood-fired pizza oven at the opposite end of the dining room. Most days it cooks up a choice of at least four pizzas and cheesy bread, all crafted from dough made fresh each day in the kitchen. There’s also a deli station with made-to-order sandwiches and paninis, a grill station featuring everything from bison to chicken, and a “Park Side” station with hot food items such as mashed potatoes and spicy ethnic dishes. Soup comes from house-made stocks.

“It’s a lot better than previous years,” said veteran starting linebacker Larry Foote. “Different stuff. They have this black-eyed pea curry that’s really good.”

In addition, four bakers crank out a tempting display of desserts, though players as a rule aren’t too big on sweets. On a recent Tuesday, selections included a flaky fruit tart brimming with fresh berries, pumpkin cake, oatmeal raisin cookies and for the players’ kids, Ho Hos Cupcakes. To help replace nutrients sweated out during practice, the kitchen employees, which this year included 50 seasonal workers in addition to the regular staff of 75, also served up glass after glass of orange, apple and other juices — some 530 gallons over the course of the four-week camp, or nearly 8,500 8-ounce servings.

Breakfast at training camp entails nearly as many choices. In addition to an omelet station where players can choose from more than a dozen kinds of fillings, there’s homemade oatmeal, cereals and a variety of baked goods. Smoothies made by whirling together fresh fruits and yogurt get a nutritional push with protein powder.

Because the menu needs to be approved in advance by team nutritionist Leslie Bonci and other staff, Chef Laskie and Mr. Esmi start planning early in May. By July 15, everything is confirmed, though not set completely in stone: Menu offerings are continually tweaked based on players’ likes and specials requests. To keep things exciting for players (and themselves), the culinary staff also cooks up a “surprise” every two or three days. Last week, for example, the team enjoyed a Brazilian barbecue of rubbed beef sirloin and brined turkey breast kebabs. Another night it was sushi.

“This is the players home for four weeks, and we want to do our part to make sure they’re happy,” said Chef Laskie.

Besides, he added, hospitality is part of the St. Vincent tradition. Which is why the culinary team also is responsible for preparing the concessions that feed the 5,000 to 10,000 fans who visit camp on any given day: hot dogs, pretzels, nachos.

Given all their workouts, it’s not unheard of for an NFL player to consume 5,000 calories or more each day during training camp. Multiply that by 90, plus what the 15 coaches, other staff and invited guests end up eating, and the end result is a grocery list that rivals that of a big restaurant. This year’s food order included 1,600 pounds each of chicken and beef, along with 1,100 pounds of fish. By the time camp concludes tomorrow, players also will have eaten their way through 1,200 pounds of cheese, 1,500 pounds of fresh seasonal veggies — a majority of it sourced locally — and two tons of fresh fruit. That’s 120 pounds of bananas, peaches, oranges and apples each day.

The Steelers’ training table includes healthy grains, such as this wheat berry salad. Gretchen McKay

Parkhurst continues the program at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on the South Side once the season gets underway.

Feeding the Steelers during the annual pilgrimage to St. Vincent’s requires a herculean effort, with the morning crew arriving at 4 a.m. and the night crew working well past midnight. But no one’s complaining. Not even when there’s barely a second to catch your breath, let alone take a coffee break.

“When you enjoy what you do,” explained Mr. Esmi, who’s been doing it at St. Vincent’s for more than three decades, “you never go ‘Whew.'”


 

Black & Gold Thai Turkey Burgers with Asian Slaw

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Hamburgers are so passe, at least when they’re made with beef. These tasty, low-fat poultry burgers are one of the Steelers’ favorite lunch foods at training camp, says Executive Chef Rick Laskie. Made with turkey breast that’s brined, roasted and ground on site (for his brine recipe, see below), they’re charcoal-grilled right outside the dining room.

Chef Laskie wasn’t too eager to share his “secret recipe,” so whether or not the burgers are an exact replica of what the team chows down on after practice is anyone’s guess. But they’re close enough — and absolutely terrific.

Add the soy sauce a little at a time — depending on how finely ground the meat is, the mixture can quickly get soupy and thus difficult to grill.

  • 1 pound boneless, skinless turkey breast
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • Course ground black pepper to taste
  • 6 green onions, minced
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
  • Asian Slaw (recipe below)

Combine turkey breast, chicken thighs and coarse black pepper and process through grinder. (If you don’t have a grinder, get your butcher to do it for you. In a pinch, you also could purchase already-ground meat, but understand that it may contain skin.)

In a large mixing bowl, combine ground meat with green onions, cilantro, soy sauce and ginger. Shape mixture into 5-ounce patties.

Charcoal-grill burgers to 165 degrees to cook through. Serve burgers on wheat kaiser rolls with Asian Slaw.

Makes 6 burgers.

— Executive Chef Rick Laskie, Saint Vincent College


 

Asian Slaw

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  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • 2 cups thinly sliced fresh spinach
  • 2 cups thinly sliced green cabbage
  • 3 thinly sliced green onions
  • 1/2 thinly sliced bell pepper
  • 2/3 cup chopped dry roasted peanuts (optional)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil or mint

For dressing, whisk together oil, garlic, soy sauce and lime juice. In a separate bowl, combine spinach, cabbage, onions, pepper, peanuts and basil or mint. Drizzle slaw with dressing, and toss well.

Serve with Thai Turkey Burgers.

— Executive Chef Rick Laskie, Saint Vincent College


 

Apple Cider Turkey Brine

  • 1 gallon water
  • 1 cup kosher salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup apple cider
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper

Mix ingredients in a large, clean bucket or bowl. Place turkey breast-side down in another bucket, and pour brine over. Cover with plastic wrap. Brine turkey 20 to 24 hours. Rinse well before roasting.

— Executive Chef Rick Laskie, Saint Vincent College


 

Training Camp Wheat berry Salad

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Wheat berries (whole, unprocessed wheat kernels) look sort of like brown rice and are just as easy to cook. Chewy and nutty, they’re incredibly nutritious and are hearty enough to stand up to even the boldest dressing.

I used spelt berries from Clarion River Organics (www.clarionriverorganics.com, $2.50 per pound) but you can find wheat berries in most specialty grocery stores.

  • 1 cup rinsed, cleaned wheat berries
  • 1 cup celery sliced on the bias
  • 1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
  • 1/2 cup diced yellow bell pepper
  • 1 cup diced red onion
  • 2 tablespoons chopped garlic
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • Cracked black pepper and kosher salt to taste
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • Fresh sliced tomatoes for garnish

Rinse berries with cold water, submerging to remove soil particles; drain. Simmer wheat berries in lightly salted water for 25 to 30 minute, or until they are chewy but not crunchy. Drain and rinse berries under cold water.

Toss wheat berries with celery, peppers, onion, garlic and parsley. In a separate bowl, combine oil and vinegar and whisk to combine. Drizzle dressing over salad and toss to combine. (I only used about half.) Salt and pepper to taste.

Refrigerate and serve cold with fresh sliced tomatoes.

Makes 4 cups.

— Executive Chef Rick Laskie, Saint Vincent College