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Anclote High culinary students cook up a savory assignment for annual festival

HOLIDAY — When it comes to comfort food, a bowl of soup ranks pretty high on the list.

Often, what lands on the table is familial tradition for those who can trace their roots to a particular region of the world, whether it be a creamy clam chowder from the Northeast, a pasta fagioli from Italy or a classic Greek soup made with chicken, lemons and egg yolks, called avgolemono.

For students in the Culinary Academy at Anclote High School, preparing a soup with a particular ethnic heritage for faculty members to critique is an annual rite of passage.

For three days last week, the culinary classroom was a bevy of activity and a blend of aromas as students caramelized onions, braised chunks of pork, shredded chicken breasts and picked fleshy crab meat from shells for the school's annual soup festival.

"It's an assignment we do every year," said their teacher, Bob Wright, noting that students must also write an essay on the heritage of their recipe and the ethnic customs of the geographical region.

While some recipes didn't quite make it, in all there were 10 soups for teachers to sample during their lunch periods.

Return customer Mitch Schafer, a credit recovery teacher who helps students stay on track to graduate, said he has tried more than two dozen soups over the last few years and has never been disappointed.

"I love it because I love soup and I like trying different soups," Schafer said. "The students put their hearts and souls into cooking it."

"It's one of the highlights of the year," said health occupations teacher Theresa Mundy, who scooped up four small samples to take back to her classroom. "And the students get so excited about it."

Cleopatra Stavropoulos and Nicholas Messineo, both 17, said they had vegetarians in mind when they cooked up batches of vegetable barley and vegan shiitake miso cleansing soups

Joey Comer, 16, and Jake Quitter, 17 opted for French onion on a whim.

"I've actually never had this particular soup, so I thought I would give it a try," Comer said.

For Elaura Albert, 17, the memory of her late mother and a bowl of creamy crab bisque she enjoyed on a family vacation to Clearwater Beach a year ago had her wanting to try out a recipe for South Carolina she-crab soup.

"I was raised on soul food," said Albert, adding that she learned the art of cooking at her mother's knee.

"She taught me a lot," she said as she stirred pieces of crab into her pot of soup. "I do this because it's like she's still around. When I'm making stuff like this, it's like she never left."

A Mexican soup called pazole rojo, made with ingredients that included pork shoulder, red chiles, garlic, cilantro, cumin and hominy corn and a garnish of cabbage, avocado, radishes and lime, was the natural choice for Andrew Mills.

His mother taught him the intricacies of the family recipe, which includes pureeing, rather than chopping, the peppers for the red sauce, and cooking the soup long enough so the meat has a "melt in your mouth" consistency.

"It's a celebration soup that we make for weddings and special events," said Mills, 17, who partnered with classmate Logan Reincke, 16, for the competition. "Sometimes we make it just because it's good."

Contact Michele Miller at Follow @MicheleMiller52.