“It’s a walk-off.”

When the Who Cooked It Better? gauntlet was thrown down after Endless Simmer’s Spice Master contest, I couldn’t help but smile. As anyone who knows me can tell you, most of my kitchen improvisations involve cumin, paprika, chili powder, or a combination of the three. Working three of the spices from the Tunisian fun-pack wouldn’t be the problem – editing would. I needed to find a dish that highlighted the spices without going overboard.  I wanted to avoid doing a typical lamb-and-cous cous arrangement, so I figured I’d try to work with some kind of fish or shellfish.

In the end, I turned to John Ash’s “From the Earth to the Table,” a cookbook we picked up after seeing it in a winery in Temecula, California. We’ve found some real winners in this book before, and Elizabeth reminded me that one of them is a delicious tomato-curry soup served with riso (a rice-like pasta, similar to orzo only smaller and easier to overcook).  The soup base already had me using one of the required spices, so it seemed like a great place to start.

Full disclosure – I’m not really a recipe person. I like to use them more as inspirations than blueprints, adding ingredients that make sense (or that I happen to have on hand). In this case, however, I tried to stay relatively close to the original recipe and then supplement or replace with the Tunisian spices we had to work with.

Recipe after the jump.

Tomato-Curry Soup with Riso and Shrimp

I started with half a white onion and two cloves of garlic, sauteeing them for a few minutes in one tablespoon olive oil. Gotta love that aroma. When the garlic and onions started to look translucent and just a little brown (about a minute or two), I added in the soup base and all of its attendant spices: 4 cups chicken stock, 1 cup dry white wine, 2 pounds of chopped tomatoes (canned diced tomatoes also work in a pinch), 1 tablespoon curry powder, 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger, 1/2 teaspoon smoky paprika, 1 teaspoon whole fennel seeds, 1 teaspoon harissa paste, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, and 1/8 teaspoon saffron threads. From there, it was a simple matter of letting the soup simmer over medium-low heat for 10 or 12 minutes to allow the flavors to come together.

While that was simmering, I cooked 1/3 cup of riso for roughly 9 minutes, draining it when it was just shy of al dente. The riso then went into the soup along with one pound of peeled, deveined shrimp, where they were allowed to simmer for five minutes or so – just enough time to cook the shrimp through and soften up the riso. A quick taste, an extra dash of curry, some salt and some pepper, and the soup was ready to go. I served it with a few additional saffron threads sprinkled on top for good measure.

This is a surprisingly refreshing soup that would make a good starter to a lamb or beef dish for a dinner party, but it also stands as a meal on its own, even on a hot day. The curry and the cumin give it a dusky, smoky flavor and the harissa adds a touch of immediate heat. The riso and the shrimp satisfy without being overly heavy. And there’s plenty of opportunity for improvisation – I’m hard-pressed to think of any combinations of spices that you couldn’t work into this soup in one way or another, as long as you keep the chicken stock/white wine/curry base.

Enjoy – and be sure to stop by Endless Simmer to cast your vote for Who Cooked It Better!