“The first time I tried your dad’s salad,” my friend Terrie recalled, “my eyes popped open, my mouth was burning, and I was like, ‘What the ... ’”
Her experience was far from unique. And like the rest of them, she came to love my dad’s salad, garlic and all.
A simple mix of lettuce, tomato and onion dressed with a vinaigrette and served with olives and feta on the side, Howard’s garlic salad, as everyone called it, was widely celebrated among our family and circle of friends. Eating a bowl of it could be as cathartic as a sweat lodge. For those accustomed to raw garlic, the way it was absorbed and balanced by the other ingredients was a thing of beauty.
My cousin Sandy took that level of garlic completely in stride, but she couldn’t make it happen in her own kitchen.
“I tried so hard to recreate your dad’s salad,” she complained the last time I saw her. “I added tons of garlic to the dressing, but it didn’t taste like his salad.”
This wasn’t a lot of information, but it was enough for me to diagnose the problem. You don’t add the garlic to the dressing. You add it to the salad.
In salad dressing, garlic stands little chance of bonding to the leaves, where it belongs. Soaked in vinegar and lubed in oil, the garlic will slide past the leaves and collect at the bottom of the bowl, effectively impotent. And Howard’s garlic was anything but that.
He would wash and dry the lettuce leaf by leaf, slipping into a deeper meditative state with each piece of foliage. He would chop the prepped lettuce and add it to his oiled wooden salad bowl, which always smelled deeply of garlic because he didn’t wash it with soap. He would press the garlic and add the puree to the leaves, along with salt, and gently toss everything together. The garlic entered the cut ends and broken creases in the leaves, marinating and generally impregnating them with its pungent funk. You couldn’t rinse it off if you wanted to.
And while Howard’s garlic technique was revolutionary, his use of salt was reliable, which is a trait that pitifully few salad makers can claim. If your salad is a pile of unwanted foliage weighed down by croutons, fried chicken and ranch dressing, this message is not for you. But if you prefer a simple salad that celebrates raw ingredients, you need a simple dressing of oil and some kind of acid. Those two alone won’t cut it, though. Too many salad makers are weak on salt.
For more guidance, here’s the recipe for my dad’s garlic salad.
This salad is meant to push you out of your comfort zone in the garlic department. It will also absorb and neutralize more than you might expect, so don’t hold back. Unless you find yourself in close proximity to some pitiful soul who has not eaten Howard’s salad. In that case, you might want to hold back a little.
Holding several leaves at once, chop the lettuce crosswise into bite-size chunks and add them to a salad bowl, preferably wooden. Add the garlic and salt and toss them into the leaves. Add the tomatoes and onions atop the garlic-impregnated leaves. As soon as they hit, the smell of the salad begins to really carry.
When it’s time to eat the salad, whisk the oil and vinegar together until completely blended and thickened. Immediately pour the dressing over the salad. Toss it all together and serve, preferably in wooden bowls that may smell of garlic.
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