This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2017.
In our cooking series Quickies, we invite chefs, bartenders, and other personalities in the world of food and drink who are serious hustlers to share their tips and tricks for preparing quick, creative after-work meals. Every dish featured in Quickies takes under 30 minutes to make, but without sacrificing any deliciousness—these are tried-and-tested recipes for the super-busy who also happen to have impeccable taste.
Niçoise salad has got a bad rep. The French classic of tomatoes, egg, and tuna or anchovies has been ruined by many a chain restaurant and faux-bistro—burdened with tinned tuna or drowned in too much dressing. But when we asked David Gingell, head chef and co-founder of North London's Primeur and Westerns Laundry, for his go-to, post-work summer dinner when it's muggy outside and sweating over a hot stove for hours is not an option, the underrated niçoise was top of his list.
"With these kind of quick after-work things, it's alway so tempting to do something Asian but I think it's nice to have something a bit European, yet punchy as hell," Gingell says as he gathers ingredients in the Westerns Laundry kitchen. "When I make a niçoise, I like to use mackerel, which is like the Cornish tuna. They're part of the same species."
He continues: "Mackerel isn't going to break the bank and it's plentiful. But most of all, it's oily and delicious so it goes really well with egg and mustardy dressings."
At Westerns Laundry, the daily-changing, seafood-led menu is shaped around what came off the boats that day and luckily, Gingell has just had a bountiful delivery of freshly caught mackerel. While he fillets the fish (you can totally skip this part and pick up some pre-prepared), Gingell waxes lyrical on the humble mackerel.
"Mackerel is what I grew up catching with a little hand line at first, and then a rod as I got older. So, it's something quite dear to me," he says, deftly de-boning the fish. "It's such a beautiful thing, especially this time of the year when they start to come back from deeper waters. I could say that turbot is my favourite fish but that would be like saying that Champagne is your favourite drink, when what you actually want at the end of a long day is a cold beer."
Gingell lays the now-filleted fish on a tray, ready for grilling later, and says: "Look, at the beautiful pattern and colour of the skin. That's where the saying 'mackerel sky' comes from."
Moving on to the niçoise dressing, Gingell adds olive oil, white balsamic, and Dijon mustard to a small clip-top jar and shakes well: "This is the best way the make a salad dressing because you can store it in there as well. I've always got a jar on the go in my fridge." The mixture is poured over diced shallot, then seasoned and set aside for later.
A few new potatoes go on to boil until tender, while Gingell cleans gem lettuce leaves, quarters five cherry tomatoes, and de-stones and roughly tears apart exactly six olives. The cooked new potatoes are sliced and then put back in the saucepan with green beans to simmer for just a few minutes. Once drained and cooled, they're chopped into two-inch pieces.
The chef explains why precision is key when it comes to putting together a salad: "You want a bit of everything with each mouthful. I think it's quite nice when you're eating a salad to have a little treat of salty olive, not two thousand olives in one salad. When you're cooking at home, you could be really tempted to think, 'I've got a whole jar of olives, I'm going to use half of them in a salad.' And then you wind up with an olive salad."
He continues: "You need balance which is why in the recipe, I've said six olives. Stone out, ripped in half, that's 12 pieces. You're probably going to eat that salad in 12 mouthfuls. Well, my mouthfuls anyway!"
Gingell drops an egg into simmering water to soft boil, and then it's time to cook the mackerel. He seasons and lightly oils the fish before it's placed, skin-side down, under a grill. He promises that cooking mackerel is practically fool-proof: "It also works well on the barbecue because of the amount of oil in it. Even if you overcook it a little bit, which a lot of people do, it's still going to be delicious."
When the fish turns a little crispy, it's taken off the grill and sliced into bite-size pieces. Gingell arranges all the ingredients—lettuce leaves, tomatoes, green beans, olives, sliced egg, potatoes, and mackerel—on a plate and drizzles over the dressing. The dish is placed on the table with a single fork.
RECIPE: Mackerel Niçoise Salad
"I think if you need a knife to eat a salad, you've failed a little bit," says Gingell. "You should be able to eat it with just a fork, so you can use the other hand to reach for your wine or beer."
Cheers to that.