I really like people who make food I can eat.
A few years ago I worked for Easy Eats magazine, a now-defunct gluten-free digital magazine. As much as it paid poorly (not at all, in honesty), and the hours were long and random, I loved it.
I loved having control over the blog content as its editor, pulling in bloggers, photographers and companies from around the country who were so talented and passionate about living a healthful, gluten-free lifestyle. I loved bringing in test products for Editor in Chief Silvana Nardone; on top of writing gorgeous cookbooks and a blog that helps moms battle the gluten-free eating world for their families, she was also a really talented editor to work with. I loved spending long hours at her home in Brooklyn, assisting her with cooking through the current issue’s recipes, styling them together, with her kids running around and her equally talented photographer husband shooting the issue as darkness loomed upon Brooklyn Heights. I’d make the long trek home to upper Manhattan with bags stuffed full of cookbooks, beauty products, and sweet things. The job lasted a year, and in that time I pulled together several beautiful features, a few successive columns about bakeries and product tests, and built the blog up to a regular, animated following. I miss working with Silvana, as she gave me confidence and calm in a publishing world that can often be full of ego and forced energy.
My first full feature for Silvana was, fittingly, a chef collection of recipes adapted for the gluten-free eater. I’d never worked with Daniel Holzman of The Meatball Shops before, but I knew if a meatball was to be on my menu, he’d be the one to ask. Despite his fancy French training and traditionally cheffy path, he’s ended up owning a mini-empire of Meatball restaurants that I adore to this day. When New York is cold and gray, I want meatballs and lightly-sautéed greens. And thanks to Daniel, I can get them.
He shared the recipe below for the feature, and I devoured them at the photo shoot after making them for the camera alongside food stylist Joyce Sangirardi (another skill I picked up from EE was assisting and observing a food stylist who’s really on her shit). Later, when interviewing him for my Serious Eats column, he told me he’d put the gluten and dairy-free chicken meatballs on the menu after our work together, both to appease an audience equally hungry and to please his health-focused partner. He’s also one of the chefs signed onto work on my book. Yeah, he’s a good guy, and a very talented food maker, and I really appreciate knowing that there are spots all over town where, for 20 bucks, I can get restorative meatballs and veggies to go.
Here’s the magazine/blog Easy Eats story on Daniel from the May/June 2012 issue, updated just a smidge.
Chef Daniel Holzman
Executive Chef / Co-Owner – The Meatball Shop
Book: The Meatball Shop Cookbook, $28.00, Ballantine Books
Chef Daniel Holzman gives Italy credits for meatballs, though only for “fear of getting my knees broken”. When being completely honest, he sees them as a particularly New York City thing: every culture has their take on the meatball, and New York City takes on all cultures. At his meatball shops – five and counting – he tackles as many takes on the traditions as he can. Along with co-owner Michael Chernow, he recently penned The Meatball Shop Cookbook, where he shares recipes from the classic Bolognese to the eccentric Jambalaya Balls.
When we asked Chef Daniel to make us a gluten free take on their classic meatball, we almost expected him to simply replace regular breadcrumbs with one that are gluten free. Instead, he created something unique the stays within his moral code of cooking: keep it simple, keep it classic, and let the ingredients do the talking.
What was the first significant meal you remember making?
I remember coming home one day and being obsessed with pasta, so my mom and I decided we were going to make it. But not knowing anything about it (and we didn’t have a pasta roller), we literally just made a regular dried kind of pasta and we were rolling and rolling and hanging it with broomsticks to dry all over chairs. Every surface of our house had pasta hanging from it and it all tasted like gummy worms. We’d made these giant-sized noodles, and they were horrible.
What was your most memorable meal? Why was it so special?
I have no idea, since so many come to mind. But here’s one; I’m such a momma’s boy, but it’s probably the most memorable I think it was because it was my father’s favorite; chicken parmesan cutlets with tomato sauce. My father and mom were split up and every Saturday we’d see my dad and he’d make up parmesan chicken cutlets and spaghetti.
What was the best advice you were given that you might pass along?
First: Keep it simple, especially if cooking is a mystery to you. Don’t put yourself in a position to feel stupid or think that cooking is more of a mystery than it is. The truth is that the principals of cooking are simple and pretty straightforward, but people add so many ingredients and so many spices that they end up confusing themselves. So my best advice is start with salt, only, as your seasoning. If it’s great, don’t add anything else.
Second: Patience. We are inclined to be constantly prodding and poking and checking and raising the lid of the pot and opening the oven and what we should be doing is just waiting. There is a lot of action in cooking, but a lot too in patiently waiting for something to be done.
What makes this recipe especially exciting?
The texture of it is really special. For me, meatballs are very simple and straightforward. If you use the best quality of ingredients you’ll have some basis of flavor, so the area where they can be really good or bad is texture. You want a meatball to be really moist. With this recipe the ricotta gives it fat without making it heavy. You want a mouth feel that’s got texture – it’s a meatball – rather than something that’s going to disintegrate into your mouth. This is toothsome, light, fluffy and moist.
Did you find any challenges in making it gluten free?
There are tons of cultures that make gluten free meatballs to begin with – that make them with rice or rice flour, that don’t make them with bread crumbs. Rice is a simple thing to me, so the simple solution. We all have rice, it’s inexpensive and tasty, and it’s generally the same texture as bread. I didn’t overcomplicate my attempts; the first try I added rice and it wasn’t enough, so I doubled it. And there it was.
Is there an essential step that makes this dish sing?
Meatballs are pretty forgiving. At the end of the day unless you forget the salt they’re gonna be great.