These days Melissa Yohman-Murphy spends her days making cupcakes and elaborate wedding and birthday cakes at Blue Iris Cakery in Niles.
Before that it was serving small plates for tapas-style dining at Blue Iris Restaurant in downtown Warren.
But on Sundays, when the bakery only is open until noon, she likes to prepare large family-style meals for friends.
Melissa Yohman-Murphy tends to the frijoles negros and the arroz amarillo, the side dishes she serves with churrasco estilo Cubano and chimichurri sauce.
''We have international dinners,'' Yohman-Murphy said. ''Each one is different.''
A group of five to 10 friends will gather at the Niles home where Yohman-Murphy grew up to enjoy whatever she's prepared that week.
After studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Pittsburgh, Yohman-Murphy spent four years as pastry chef at Pier House Resort in Key West, Fla., and the Caribbean flavors prominent in the cuisine of Florida's southern-most point are a big influence on what she likes to cook.
Churrasco Estilo Cubano
2 cups bottled mojo sauce
3 pounds skirt steak
Chimichurri sauce (recipe below)
Put steak and mojo sauce in a sealed plastic bag and marinate overnight. Mojo sauce is a Cuban-style marinade. Goya and other companies make bottled versions which can be found in the Hispanic section of many grocery stores. Cook steak on an indoor or outdoor grill to desired doneness. Slice on the bias and serve steak with flour tortillas, grilled onions and chimichurri sauce.
1 cup cilantro
1 cup parsley
8 cloves garlic
1 lime peeled
1/2 cup onion
2/3 cup olive oil
crushed red pepper flakes
Add first five ingredients to a food processor and pulse until thick and chunky. Stir in olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste and a dash of crushed red pepper flakes.
Black Beans (Frijoles Negros)
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped green pepper
4 cloves garlic mashed
29-ounce can of black beans, drained and rinsed
1 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon granulated garli
1 tablespoon white wine
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
Saute onion, green pepper and garlic in olive oil until tender. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer about 40 minutes until the flavors blend.
Yellow Rice (Arroz Amarillo)
8 saffron strands
1/4 cup hot water
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion
3 cups par boiled rice
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon oregano
4 1/2 cups chicken broth
3 tablespoons butter
Steep saffron strands in the hot water for 20 minutes. Set aside. Saute olive oil and onion until translucent. Add rice and salt and saute until rice slightly browns. Add cumin, oregano, chicken broth and saffron water and bring to a boil. Lower heat and cook uncovered until rice has absorbed some of the broth. Cover and cook over low heat for 20 to 30 minutes. Before serving stir in butter and fluff with a fork.
Her tastes weren't as exotic growing up. Before going to culinary school, the only thing she could make was apple pie, she said, and her favorite meal was her mom's chicken and rice.
''I grew up in an Italian household,'' Yohman-Murphy said. ''We had pasta all the time, so it was really different from everything else. Mom always made it, and after she died, I never had it again.''
Once at school, Alice Waters (owner of the Berkeley, Calif., restaurant Chez Panisse and one of the early proponents of cooking with local ingredients) became her culinary muse.
''She stayed true to her culinary identity no matter what was cool or popular,'' Yohman-Murphy said.
The international dinners give her a chance to experiment and tinker with new recipes, and one meal that has become a favorite at home is a Cuban-style feast led by Churrasco Estilo Cubano, a marinated skirt steak.
''This is a go-to dinner for me because it's fast and easy,'' she said.
She usually buys a prepared mojo sauce and lets the steak marinate overnight in the refrigerator. Goya and other ethnic food companies make mojo sauce and it can be found in the ethnic/Hispanic section of many grocery stores, and recipes can be found online and in Cuban-themed cookbooks for those who want to make their own.
Depending on the season, the steak can be prepared on an indoor grill or outdoors.
But what really brings the flavors to life is the chimichurri sauce that is served with the meat.
''It's impressive because it's not normally found in this area,'' she said. ''The flavors are so fresh. There's a lot of citrus, garlic. The chimichurri sauce is so nice.''
The seasonings with the side dishes brighten up offerings that stand out above plain old black beans and rice. Both dishes need to simmer for awhile so the flavors can blend, but neither is labor-intensive.
And for dessert, the cupcake queen goes light and simple with fresh slices of watermelon, which she squeezes fresh lemon juice on instead of a dash of salt.
''The lemon makes the sweet sweeter.''