Songwriter now singing the praises of enchiladas

Nashville songwriter Chris Waters Dunn penned nine No. 1 hits — a couple recorded by superstars Tim McGraw and Tanya Tucker — before quitting the scene to move back to his hometown of San Antonio, Texas.

Now he’s singing the praises of authentic Mexican cuisine in his new book, “Enchiladas: Aztec to Tex-Mex.” It all came about because of music, he says, a waiting game that gave him time to ponder his next move.

“All through those years as a songwriter and record producer, you’re in a position of waiting for the artist to become interested in a song, waiting for the results of its popularity and waiting another year before the money comes in,” Dunn said.

“I found a real stress relief was the immediacy of preparing a meal and having an instant reaction. Hoping that I could do something that would please people and nurture them.”

When he mused on what to write about, “rather than lyin,’ cheatin,’ and leavin,’” he thought it would be great to go back home to San Antonio and enroll in the Culinary Institute of America. The CIA has only three campuses: New York, Napa and now San Antonio. The Texas location came about through a $35 million gift from Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury, who sold Pace Foods Ltd. (creators of the popular picante sauce) to Campbell Soup Co. for $1.12 billion. The institute offers the typical programs in French and other traditional cuisines, along with opportunities to learn about the foods of Mexico and the Southwest. Dunn studied there with Iliana de la Vega, owner of El Naranjo in Austin. He graduated and immediately started writing about food.

Eventually he came to consider the humble enchilada. It fascinates him still.

“It is an amazing, complex subject. Look at the enchildada enfrijolada (enchildada in bean sauce). That is probably at least a couple thousand years old, 750 years B.C. It’s not exactly like we make it now because of the Spanish (they brought some of the ingredients to the New World). But the beans were cooked with avocado leaf and chilies of some kind and they were eating that at least 2,000 years ago.”

He wrote the book with Cappy Lawton, a prolific restaurateur who has operated 29 restaurants throughout Texas. With his wife, Suzy, and son Trevor, Lawton owns Cappy’s, Cappycino’s and La Fonda on Main, which has been dishing up enchiladas in the Alamo City for years. “I have a huge collection of Mexican cookbooks,” Lawton said. “The two most iconic foods are tacos and enchiladas,” Lawton said. “There are several books on tacos but never a major book on enchiladas, and (Dunn) said, ‘I thought about that myself.’

“A few glasses of wine later, we decided, let’s write it together. We thought it would take six months to a year but it took three years.” Their original idea was much simpler, Lawton said, but he and Dunn agreed that if they were to complete the project, they would do it right. “We both like doing things of high quality and I’m very proud of what we did,” Lawton said. He sure is, offering a Texas-sized discount on his restaurant’s website: buy three and he’ll give you the fourth one free.

In the book, which has been short listed for the 2016 Best Latin American Cuisine Book in the U.S.A. by the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, some recipes come straight from La Fonda’s menu. Others are traditional, such as Enchiladas Suizas, a popular recipe created at Sanborn’s restaurant in Mexico City. Some are contemporary, like the fresh and delicate open-face shrimp enchilada recipe that would be right at home on a California cuisine menu. As different as they seem, Dunn said all the recipes follow three rules: they’re made with corn tortillas, they have a filling, they have a sauce. They can be rolled or folded and for enchilada novices there’s even a recipe in which they’re layered lasagna-style.

“Pastel Azteca (Aztec Cake) is a real favorite of mine,” Dunn said. “The trick there is to follow the procedure in order. Put a layer of tomato sauce, a layer of chicken, a layer of cheese and tortillas and more sauce. Keep layering and you do want to cover those edges so they won’t get too dry in oven. Plenty of sauce keeps everything really, really tender.”

For experienced cooks who like a challenge, Dunn gives step-by-step methods for traditional techniques such as making corn tortillas from scratch and roasting chilies. He invites readers to dive in as he did and promises success as long as they’re willing to keep practicing.

“I really think you just need to be brave. What did Julia Child say? ‘You have to have the courage of your convictions.’ Of course she said that after she dropped a tray of food, but she picked it right back up.”

Pastel Azteca, which translates as “Aztec cake,” is an enchilada casserole of alternating layers of corn tortillas, tomato sauce, shredded chicken, poblano chilies, cheese and crema Mexicana.



Yield: serves 8

For the sauce:

2 pounds Roma tomatoes

1/2 medium white onion, peeled and roughly chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Kosher salt, to taste

For the layers:

3 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves (8 ounces each), poached and shredded. (Use your favorite method of preparation, moisten with broth, cover and refrigerate until needed.)

6 poblano chilies, divided use (2 chilies are reserved for topping)

1 1/2 cups crema Mexicana

1 1/2 firmly packed cups queso asadero, grated (or substitute Monterey Jack)

For the assembly:

12 corn tortillas

Vegetable oil as needed for softening tortillas

1 tablespoon butter or vegetable oil for greasing casserole

For the garnish:

Chopped tomato

Cook's notes: Use caution when working with fresh chilies. On completion, wash hands and work surface thoroughly and do not touch eyes or face.


1. To make the sauce, place whole tomatoes in a saucepan, add 3/4 cup water, cover and cook over medium-low heat until the tomatoes barely burst open. Set aside to cool slightly in the cooking liquid.

2. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cooled tomatoes to a blender along with the onion and garlic. Blend to a very smooth puree, adding tomato cooking liquid as needed to achieve a thick sauce consistency. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a saucepan, add the tomato puree and cook until it slightly darkens, 10-15 minutes. Season with salt to taste, cover and set aside.

3. Prepare the poblano chilies by placing whole chilies directly on a barbecue grill over hot coals or a gas burner flame. Turn the chilies to blacken them evenly. When chilies are evenly blistered and blackened, remove and place them in a paper bag. Place the paper bag inside a plastic bag, close and allow the chilies to steam for several minutes (until cool enough to handle). Remove skins, stems, veins and seeds and slice into strips or rajas. To maintain maximum flavor, chilies should not be rinsed with water.

4. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the shredded chicken with 2/3 of the poblano strips (reserve a third for topping).

5. To prepare tortillas, pour oil to a depth of 1/2 inch in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Heat to low frying temperature, about 300 degrees. Place each tortilla in the oil and fry for a few seconds, just long enough to soften. Drain on paper towels.

6. Butter or oil a shallow, ovenproof casserole dish that will accommodate four tortillas in a single slightly overlapping layer (about 8 1/2 by 12 inches). The dish should be suitable for serving. Spread a few tablespoons tomato sauce on the bottom of the dish.

7. To assemble the casserole, place four softened tortillas in a single layer on top of the tomato sauce, followed by half of the poblano/chicken mixture, 1/3 of the remaining tomato sauce, 1/2 cup crema Mexicana and 1/2 cup queso asadero.

8. Layer with four more tortillas, the remaining chicken/poblano mixture, 1/3 of the tomato sauce, 1/2 cup crema Mexicana and 1/2 cup queso asadero. Top with the last four tortillas and remaining tomato sauce, crema Mexicana and queso asadero. Decorate the top with the reserved poblano strips.

9. Bake in heated oven until the cheese is melted and the pastel is heated through, 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven and garnish with tomato. Loosely cover with aluminum foil and let rest for a few minutes before serving.

Source: From “Enchiladas: Aztec to Tex-Mex,” by Cappy Lawton and Chris Waters Dunn. Traditional recipe adapted by Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo restaurant in Austin, Texas.