Local pro sports stars are crunch-time chefs, too

  • Article by: DAVID LA VAQUE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 9, 2013 - 6:17 AM

Off the field and court, three local professional sports figures have an aptitude for whetting appetites.

 Sure, we know they can play. But how do pro athletes deliver at a different sort of crunch time?

The Star Tribune dropped in on three players known for getting their hands on the ball — United FC goalkeeper Matt VanOekel, Vikings center John Sullivan and Lynx guard Maya Moore — and asked them to show us how they handled one of their cooking specialties for one of those postcard-pleasant summertime meals in Minnesota.

Here’s what an admitted carnivore, a self-proclaimed foodie and a squash convert cooked up for Instagram-posting consideration, along with a peek at their special touches.

Matt VanOekel

Whether serving spaghetti dinners to rookies or playing host to teammates unable to travel for Easter, Minnesota United FC goalkeeper VanOekel and his wife, Jen, are known for their good food and hospitality. So when VanOekel announced he was making kebabs, five teammates rushed to his Apple Valley home for a midsummer lunch.

“If you give me meat,” VanOekel said, “I’m going to grill it for you and it’s going to be good.”

VanOekel did not disappoint, making up 26 skewers of marinated chicken, top sirloin steak — seasoned with a special house blend of spices he discovered back home in Chesapeake, Va. — and deer sausage. At his wife’s behest, VanOekel, a proud carnivore, began mixing in vegetables, red, yellow and orange peppers and purple potatoes.

Those elements, VanOekel discovered, have a practical purpose. He said he bookends the skewers with peppers “because they don’t slide as much.”

But the meats take center stage. Connor Tobin was scolded for eating half of the deer sausage, the favorite among VanOekel’s teammates.

An avid griller since his days at Rutgers University, VanOekel does not let the Minnesota winters dictate his diet. He grills on the deck, in the snow, sometimes wearing flip flops to further defy the elements. His other specialties are bratwurst and his version of the Juicy Lucy cheese-stuffed hamburger.

“It’s always nice when you can make something good,” VanOekel said.

John Sullivan

Growing up in Connecticut, Vikings center John Sullivan and his three brothers rarely ate out at restaurants. Their mother, Marilyn, cooked with mostly organic ingredients.

Sullivan, considered a “foodie” within the Vikings organization for his knowledge of contrasting flavors, still consumes organic meals and grass-fed beef almost exclusively. He recently prepared a honey jalapeño flank steak and grilled it on a Big Green Egg, a ceramic cooker in which he’s made everything from chocolate chip cookies to steaks to pizza.

“I enjoy watching cooking shows and eating good food at restaurants around the country,” said Sullivan, who played college football at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. “And I enjoy the process of cooking.”

Sullivan’s myriad culinary skills went into the honey jalapeño marinade. Showing great dexterity beyond snapping the ball and then clearing blockers for Adrian Peterson on Sundays, Sullivan cut up jalapeños and removed most of the seeds, thereby keeping the jalapeño’s flavor without the considerable heat. Then he added soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, honey and crushed red pepper to a freezer bag of wet ingredients, topped off with peeled ginger root.

“I saw that online,” Sullivan said of the ginger root.

Moving to the spacious deck outside his home on Lake Minnetonka, Sullivan grilled the steak without fretting too much about exact temperature or time.

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