Not Tonight, Vampires: A Garlic Salad That Deliciously Pushes the Limit

Not Tonight, Vampires: A Garlic Salad That Deliciously Pushes the Limit
Howard's Garlic Salad is a simple mix of lettuce, tomato, and onions dressed in a vinaigrette, topped with olives and feta on the side. (Ari LeVaux)

My friend Terrie recalled the first time she tried my dad’s salad.

“My eyes popped open and my mouth was burning and I was like, ‘What the ...’” she said.

Her experience was far from unique. And like the rest of them, she came to love Dad’s salad, garlic and all.

A simple mix of lettuce, tomato, and onions dressed in a vinaigrette, topped 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. To those accustomed to raw garlic, it wasn’t a challenge but a thing of beauty, the way it was absorbed and balanced by the other ingredients.

My cousin Sandy took that level of garlic completely in stride but couldn’t make it happen in her own kitchen.

“I tried so hard to recreate your dad’s salad,” she complained, flabbergasted, when I saw her recently. “I added tons of garlic to the dressing, but it didn’t taste like his salad.”

It wasn’t much 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.

Garlic in salad dressing stands little chance of bonding to the leaves, where it belongs. Soaked in vinegar and slicked with oil, the garlic will slide past the leaves and collect in 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 with each one into a deeper meditative state. He would chop the prepped lettuce and add it to his oiled wooden salad bowl, which was never washed with soap and always smelled deeply of garlic. He would press the garlic, add the puree to the leaves, along with salt, and gently toss it all together. The garlic entered the cut ends and broken creases in the leaves, marinating and fumigating and generally infusing the foliage with its pungent funk. You couldn’t rinse it off if you wanted to. Hence, the garlic becomes integral to the salad—not on the salad but of the salad.

And while Dad’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 weighted down by croutons, fried chicken, and ranch dressing, this message isn't 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. But those two alone won’t cut it. Too many salad makers are weak on salt.

To recap, multiply the garlic by 10, rub it on the leaves, and don’t forget the salt.

For more guidance, here's the recipe for my dad’s garlic salad.

Howard’s Garlic Salad

This salad is meant to push your comfort zone in the garlic department. It'll also absorb and neutralize more than you might expect. So don’t hold back. And don’t be shy. Unless you find yourself in close proximity to some pitiful soul who hasn't eaten Dad’s salad. In that case, you might want to hold back and be a little shy.
Serves 4
  • 1 large head romaine, bottom sliced off, leaves separated, washed, and dried
  • 1 head leafy lettuce such as Boston or green leaf or red leaf, bottom sliced off, leaves separated, washed, and dried
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and pressed or grated
  • 1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
  • 2 cups quartered fresh tomatoes
  • 1/2 sweet onion, finely minced
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (California Olive Ranch, if you don’t have a brand you like)
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
  • Feta and olives to serve
Holding several leaves at once, chop the lettuce crosswise into bite-size chunks and add them to a large salad bowl, preferably wooden. Add the garlic and salt and toss it into the leaves. Add the tomatoes and onion on top of the garlic-infused leaves. As soon as they hit, the smell of the salad begins to really carry.

When it’s time to eat, whisk together the oil and vinegar until completely blended and thickened, and immediately pour it over the salad. Toss it all together and serve, preferably in small wooden bowls that may or may not smell of garlic, with feta and olives on the side.

Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.
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