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Kids go kwazy with kumquats

When it comes to judging the annual Kumquat Festival Cooking Contest, Betsy Crisp looks forward to the youth entries.

"Kids are sometimes the most creative of the bunch. Those kids really put their heart and soul into it," says Crisp, of Pasco's Cooperative Extension Service, who has served as a judge since the contest's inception seven years ago.

Kumquats, the miniature orange-looking citrus fruit boasting a sweet or sour taste depending on the variety, are a big deal in east Pasco. Although the fruit originates from China, St. Joseph is noted as the kumquat capital of the United States and hosts an annual festival that this year will be Jan. 31 at the Pasco County Fairgrounds.

Over the years, students in the Culinary Arts Program at Moore Mickens Education Center have come up with an unusual assortment of palate pleasers for the contest, including last year's blue ribbon entry by Brent Benjamin for Kumquat Pizza. "It probably doesn't sound like it would taste good," Crisp said. "But it was wonderful."

This year the kids from Moore Mickens are sure not to disappoint.

On the list of entries are Teisha Hicks' Kumquat Gator with Spicy Peanut Rice, Theresa Bolles' Kumquat Vinegar and Cory Lovell's Chocolate Kumquat Baklava.

On Friday morning students were under the gun to prepare and plate up their recipes that had to be dropped off at the fairgrounds before 1 p.m.

Patrick Coy was seeing to his Kumquat Breakfast Bread while Roberto Colon put the finishing touches on his Kumquat Chiffon Cake with Kumquat Fluff Frosting. Teisha stir-fried her gator, and at another cooking station Theresa tossed lettuce with her Kumquat Vinegar for her Kumquat Salad entry.

Preparation for the contest begins in the fall with students taking a field trip to Kumquat Growers Inc. in St. Joseph. Kumquat Growers also donates the six bushels of kumquats that are either dried or frozen before the winter holiday break and used later on as the heralded ingredient in the contest.

"This is just a wonderful contest," said Trisha Hall, director of culinary arts at Moore Mickens. "Opportunities like this give students some real-life experience."

It also lends to creativity. "These being teenagers, they go straight out," Hall said. "They have the gusto for this, and over the years, they've come up with some strange ideas."

Like combining gators and kumquats. "This is the first time we've seen that," Crisp said.

Teisha, who is headed for the Culinary Arts Institute in Orlando next year, came up with her gator-kumquat recipe after scanning the Internet. According to contest rules, that's okay as long as three things are changed: the title, which must include kumquat, ingredient(s) and the method of preparation. "I found a recipe I liked then modified it," Teisha said. She also used her family as test subjects and followed some advice from her mom, Teresa Hicks, who suggested more kumquat and less red chiles in the rice.

"Wow, it's perfect," said Mrs. Hicks, taking a taste of the leftovers. "I could eat this all day long."