How 'The Great American Recipe' Winner Infuses Cultural Heritage Into Every Holiday

Silvia Martinez, the first winner of the PBS series, is here to share her favorite Mexican dishes in both traditional and new forms.

silvia martinez headshot and chiles en nogada on plate

Courtesy of PBS/VPM

A native of Mexico and California transplant, Silvia Martinez has a passion for infusing the flavors of her heritage into the food she serves her family. She would go on to participate and (spoiler alert!) win the first season of PBS’s The Great American Recipe. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, it brings together 10 multicultural home cooks to compete—similar to the Great British Baking Show—while telling stories through food. The show highlights what truly makes American cuisine unique.  

Feeling at Home in the Kitchen

As a child growing up in Guanajuato, Mexico, Martinez spent a lot of time in the kitchen helping her grandma. “If you’re in the kitchen, she’s going to give you something to do,” she says. “I love that energy in the kitchen.” By the age of 14, she was the cook in the house. “My mom said, ‘The kitchen is yours now.’ Now that I live (in the United States), I saw the importance to passing on my heritage to my kids.” Since her family hadn’t documented the recipes she grew up with, Martinez created a blog,Mamá Latina, as a way to share the tips and recipes she loves with not just family, but everyone. 

Combining Cultural and New Flavors Into Dishes

“One of the greatest things about living in the United States is that it’s opened my horizon into food,” she says. “When you live in Mexico, you eat Mexican food.” Once she moved to California, married her American husband, and had children, she started blending the flavors she knew with new ones. Instead of the basics, she would infuse Mexican flavor into everyday dishes such as poblano macaroni and cheese or drinks such as horchata iced coffee.

On the show, Martinez made sopa by first frying the vegetables on the stove top. “I don’t think about it because my family does it.” I think it’s a combination of two things,” she says. “The things you do because it’s the way your grandma or mom taught you and it’s natural. Sometimes I learn to things in a different way. I’m always learning. Every time I get a new technique that makes my life easier in the kitchen, I just try it out."

chiles en nogada on plate
Chiles en nogada is a traditional Mexican dish. This recipe by Silvia Martinez is featured on the cover of "The Great American Recipe Cookbook.".

Courtesy of PBS/VPM

Celebrating Holidays in a Cultural, Bilingual Household

Martinez wants to honor both her Mexican heritage and share American culture with her family. The easiest way to combine holidays for her is through food. When food-focused holidays like Thanksgiving roll around, you might find a traditional roasted turkey on the table with Mexican adobo sauce alongside. Or perhaps instead of a plain chocolate pie, a spicy chocolate pie infused with the chile flavors Martinez grew up enjoying. 

“It’s fun not just celebrating Mexican holidays with my kids, but also with my American family. I bring my heritage through food.” — Silvia Martinez

On the Mexican side of tradition, Martinez always celebrates Las Posadas, a nine-day celebration leading up to Christmas. This gives her the opportunity to tell her kids little-known facts such as how the piñata became a tradition as well as share classic Mexican dishes. During this multi-day party, Martinez says she “brings the flavors” with Ponche Navideño, pozole, enchiladas, and more. The party is just getting started, because once Christmas hits, the celebration grows bigger and better, going until Día de la Candelaria on February 2.

epazote leaves on wood surface
Epazote is an herb commonly found in Mexican dishes such as beans and tortilla soup.

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The Mexican Ingredients You Need In Your Pantry

Martinez notes tomatillos were hard to find 20 years ago, but is glad to see them making their way into more American cuisine. The unique product that’s harder to find? Epazote. This is an herb that Martinez says has a “very pungent flavor and aroma.” Known to help with digestion, it’s usually added to bean dishes or enjoyed as tea. The distinct flavor of epazote is also used in traditional tortilla soup recipes. “Once you try tortilla soup (with epazote) and then others, you’re going to say, ‘That’s not tortilla soup.’ It has a very potent flavor that balances very well with the tomato.” Lastly, she’s all for utilizing different chile peppers such as poblanos in every dish she makes to bring a bit of heat.

Martinez’s Chiles en Nogada is featured on the cover of The Great American Recipe Cookbook  and she’s got a lot of new Mexican recipes and tips to share—hopefully through classes in person as well as social media.

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