Cooks Corner

What’s your favorite four-ingredient dish?

Substitute arugula for basil for a peppery pesto.
Substitute arugula for basil for a peppery pesto.

Last week I was emailing with two old friends from Miami Shores who used to cook with me all the time, but we have since scattered across the country. Both made the same complaint: They were tired of seeing recipes that called for a long list of ingredients.

“That’s not how people really cook,” Jane said.

Laura told me her favorite go-to meal called for four ingredients, and the challenge was on.

I tried her recipe for sweet-sour-spicy chicken and would never have thought it was basically supermarket condiments thrown together.

Jane sent me her four-ingredient pesto, and when I asked my sister if she had one to add, she rattled off a quick salmon dish.

So it seems you really can throw together a quick and delicious dish with just a few ingredients, and good cooks do it all the time.

Do you have a four-ingredient secret specialty? Send me yours to share.

Reader request

Q. I love your column and the way you find recipes that have gotten lost or just not available! I have been reading it for many years, and now I find myself in a recipe quest only you can solve.

I had a delicious sauce called Meli Melu at a restaurant, but when I looked it up, I found nothing that resembled it. On their menu it says the sauce is made with preserved lemons and chicken broth. Can you help?

Marta Magellan, Pinecrest

A. Preserved lemons are used often in Moroccan/North African cooking, notably in a tagine with chicken and olives.

Basically, this is an ancient process predating refrigeration and year-round availability of citrus. The lemons are preserved in a simple salt brine. The process takes some of the pucker out of the taste, so the flavor is less sour and very lemony and abundantly salty.

You can find preserved lemons in specialty markets and kitchen stores, or you can make your own if so inclined. Recipes are easy to find online — you basically pack quartered lemons and coarse salt into a canning jar and cover with lemon juice — but be prepared to wait at least three weeks for the lemons to be ready. The peel should be soft and mellow and nearly translucent. The same process can be used with limes or oranges.

To use preserved lemons in cooking, remove a piece from the jar, rinse to remove caked salt, throw away the seeds and any pulp, and then very thinly slice the rind to use. It will perk up just about any dish. Use it, replacing the salt, in couscous or rice or in soups (it is lovely in tomato bisque) or stews.

Unfortunately, the restaurant where you tasted the preserved lemon sauce did not respond to multiple requests for the recipe. Happily, I have one which sounds very similar, though it does not have that fanciful name.

Tried and new

Davie’s Shar Melwani started her cookie business as the mother of a first-grader who couldn’t find what she wanted for a birthday party, and now Cookies by Shar is in Whole Foods and Epicure and online at

Her mantra is that cookies should look as good as they taste, so her shortbread cookies are little works of art made from nothing but real butter, eggs, unbleached flour and pure vanilla. She also makes a Key lime version, and fist-size chocolate chip.

For Valentine’s Day, a great option that avoids mundane flowers and chocolate is her box of 12 Valentine’s Day cookies, festive in pink and red and sparkly sugar, shipped in a gift box to college students, military friends and moms and grandmas anywhere in the United States for $48 plus shipping. Individually priced cookies are also available at her Davie shop and at Whole Foods and Epicure.

Linda Cicero: @TasteMemories. Write to Cook’s Corner at Food, Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Doral, FL 33172.

Chicken or Fish with Preserved Lemon Sauce

Recipe adapted by Linda Cicero, who uses this sauce interchangeably on chicken or fish fillets and often adds a little harissa or fresh herbs at the end, such as tarragon or dill leaves.

4 boneless chicken breasts, or 4 (6-ounce) fish fillets

2 tablespoons butter

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup vegetable or chicken stock

Juice of one lemon

1/3 cup half-and-half or plain yogurt

1/2 preserved lemon, rinsed and thinly sliced

If using chicken, rinse and pound to a uniform thickness. When buying fish, look for fillets that are about the same thickness.

Melt butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. When the butter is sizzling but not browned, add the chicken or fish. Brown 2 to 3 minutes per side, then remove from pan and reserve. Add the garlic to the pan and sauté briefly. Stir in the chicken stock, then the lemon juice and finally the half-and-half. Cook a few minutes, scraping up browned bits from the bottom of the pan, until sauce is thickened. Add the preserved lemon pieces.

Slide chicken or fish back into pan. Spoon sauce on top. Cover and reduce heat to low. Cook just until chicken or fish are cooked through. If desired, stir in harissa, white pepper or fresh herbs just before serving.

Yield: 4 servings

Donna’s Quick Salmon

1/4 cup whole-grain Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons honey

1/2 cup panko bread crumbs

1-pound skinless salmon fillet

Heat oven to 450 degrees. In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard and honey. Put the salmon on a baking sheet, spoon the mustard mix on top, sprinkle on the bread crumbs, and bake until the salmon is cooked through, about 10 minutes.

Yield: 2 servings

Jane’s Fast Pesto

The recipe uses arugula rather than basil, Jane says, “because you can buy it in a bag already washed, and it is a lot less expensive.” You can add pine nuts or walnuts when you’re pulsing, but that goes beyond the four ingredients.

4 cups arugula

2 cloves garlic, peeled

1/2 cup parmesan, or to taste

1/2 cup olive oil

Combine the arugula, garlic and parmesan in a food processor, pulsing until arugula is well chopped. With the machine running, slowly pour in the olive oil, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add salt and red pepper flakes as desired, and serve over hot pasta, toasted Italian bread slices or on roasted vegetables.

Yield: About 1 3/4 cups

Laura’s Sweet-Sour-Spicy Chicken

You could add chopped cilantro or green onion or broccoli florets if you want some color on the plate.

2/3 cup bottled barbecue sauce

2/3 cup orange marmalade

Sriracha to taste

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into small cubes

Combine the barbecue sauce and marmalade in a saucepan over medium-low heat while cooking the chicken. Heat a little oil in a wok or skillet, add the chicken cubes and stir-fry just until no longer pink. Pour on the sauce combination and warm through. Add sriracha or other hot sauce to taste. Serve over rice.

Yield: 4 servings