Karen Small didn’t possess the typical 4-year-old’s palate as a preschooler. “I was raised on low-on-the-food-chain food — every-thing was unprocessed,” she explains. “No Wonder Bread, soda or fast food in our house. Most Sundays were spent eating [with] my grandparents, who were from Italy. Everything we ate consisted of clean, natural flavors.”
Small fondly recalls her grandma’s escarole soup with ditalini pasta, a childhood favorite. Her grandma, she says, taught her about cooking from scratch and to respect what comes out of the ground and to use it wisely. She calls her grandparents the original herb gardeners. “They had a plot in the back of the house and grew it all, from tomatoes to herbs to fennel and celery.”
That period of her life has defined how she approaches and tastes food today. When she creates a dish, she seeks a harmony of sweet, salty and sour, albeit often through unconventional means. Rather than go for honey or sugar to bring in a sweet element, she may place a sweet tomato flavor opposite a vinegar.
“These three things have to bounce off of each other in a dish or it becomes one-dimensional,” she says. “When we taste and create new things, we always play around, but these three characteristics need to come into play.”