Go ahead. Pop one. Take a ripe, fragrant kumquat, roll the finely pebbled, orange-colored skin between the fingers (that releases the oil within the skin). Place in the mouth, skin and all. Now bite.

The rind is surprisingly sweet while the pulp is often as sour as all get-out. There is a refreshing and powerful surge of flavor. No wonder the Chinese have enjoyed the "golden orange" for centuries.

The sun-loving kumquat, which is grown in California and Florida as well as other parts of the world, is related to the citrus family-- oranges, lemons and limes. It looks like a miniature orange. But the kumquat has its own genus-- Fortunella--named for Robert Fortune, who brought the fruit to the attention of the Royal Horticultural Society in London in 1846. The shape may be oval or round. The harvest season runs from mid-October to May.

HOW TO BUY: Do not simply scoop a handful of kumquats out of the bin and toss them in a bag. Select the fruits one by one. Choose plump, firm, glossy fruits free of soft spots and blemishes. Fruits with moist, green leaves attached are an excellent indication that they are fresh.

HOW TO STORE: The thin-skinned kumquats are more perishable than other citrus fruits. They may be stored at room temperature for a few days or refrigerated for up to two weeks. But it's much better to use them as soon as possible after purchase.

HOW TO PREPARE AND SERVE: Having a dinner party? Slices of juicy, colorful kumquat are perfect as a cocktail garnish with Champagne, gin or vodka drinks. (Pick out the tiny green seeds when serving the fruit sliced.) Pass whole kumquats between courses as a palate cleanser. Decorate the rib ends of crown roast of lamb or pork with a kumquat instead of a frilly paper sleeve. Still grilling? Place them on skewers and lightly toast over the coals. To add to salads: blanch in boiling water for 20 seconds to soften the skin. Plunge in ice water. Then, thin-slice. For fish: saute shallots and sliced kumquats. Deglaze the pan with a little white wine. Thicken the sauce with butter. The Chinese love kumquats pickled or preserved in a sugar syrup.

Christian Gautrois, former chef of Maison Blanche now in the kitchen at Le Relais in Great Falls, is thinking kumquats. His new fall menu will feature the tart fruits poached in a light syrup surrounding roast duck breast and a sweet-sour sauce. This winter, pastry chef Bruno Feldeisen, co-owner of Sen5es, a French bistro and pastry shop in Georgetown, will be serving a kumquat compote with warm chocolate cake as well as a kumquat jam, available at Sunday brunch or by the jar. The holiday season is coming. To accompany the big bird, chef Mary Richter, owner of Zuki Moon in the West End, cooks whole cranberries, quartered kumquats and a little fresh ginger with sugar and water.