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SPECIAL ISSUE: HOLIDAY COOKING

Dweezil makes a brisket

For a Hanukkah feast for friends, Lisa Loeb and Dweezil Zappa riff on the classics and add a few of their own twists.

December 17, 2003|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

Performing, it seems, is great preparation for cooking under pressure. Dweezil Zappa and Lisa Loeb are the coolest of cooks. Neither is the least bit flummoxed that smoke rises from the roasting asparagus or that the new macaroon recipe creates what Zappa calls "alien macaroons." It's almost Hanukkah, which starts at sundown Friday, and Zappa and Loeb have invited a few friends to their Studio City house for brisket and latkes, and a few less traditional surprises.

The petite pop songstress with the cat-eye glasses and the guitarist son of rock music legend Frank Zappa may have touring and recording schedules that keep them far away from home. But Loeb and Zappa still find time to share their passion for cooking.

Loeb has even taken baking to the stage. To promote her "Cake and Pie" album, she brought along their chef friend, Mark Tarbell, to bake an apple pie on stage while Loeb and Zappa performed -- and between songs, Loeb jumped in to roll out dough.

Beginning Jan. 16, the two will star in their own Food Network show, "Dweezil and Lisa." Last summer, they filmed 10 episodes of the weekly half-hour food travelogue, in which they visit restaurants, ask experts about their favorite foods and get cooking lessons from Tarbell, chef at Tarbell's in Phoenix, and Scott Conant, the chef at L'Impero in New York.

Sharing her roots

The latke holds a special place for Loeb, 35, who grew up eating the ones her mother made from the Manischewitz box mix. Now, she says, "I realize I love the simple, fresh shredded potatoes. I guess it's an old tradition coming back."

To Loeb, the latke is both a cultural artifact of Jewishness and a crispy diplomat that, with some sour cream and applesauce, finds universal acceptance.

"Dweezil is very anti-religious, and I am Jewish culturally, but always learning more and more about it," says Loeb, who admits that sharing her religious roots with her boyfriend is way easier through food.

Free to think of latkes as just potato pancakes, Zappa goes to work grating potatoes and onions, risking his knuckles on an old-fashioned box grater. He slams half a dozen russet potatoes and part of a big Maui onion through the grater in no time flat. Meanwhile, Loeb functions as head chef and strategist.

Loeb took a basic latke recipe and riffed on it over the last couple of years, adding touches such as green onion to the potatoes and topping the latkes with nicely vinegary apple-quince chutney.

They painstakingly squeeze the liquid out of the potatoes using dish towels. Moisture in the batter, Zappa explains, makes for a soggy latke.

Baby Jackson, the couple's tortoiseshell cat, suddenly comes out of hiding and sings a musical meow that catches Zappa's ear. He picks up a blue glitter electric guitar (what kitchen would be complete without one?), strums and re-creates the meow: C sharp, D sharp, almost E flat.

At the Viking stove, in the otherwise Hello Kitty-pink kitchen, Zappa tests the oil temperature with a bit of batter. Slow sizzle; it's not ready. Loeb has fear of frying, so Zappa's the fry cook -- the type who goes by gut instinct, not directions. Loeb, an exacting recipe follower, arrives with a cooking thermometer.

Zappa tastes a finished latke; not enough salt. Fishing out some broken bits of potato from the hot oil, he passes along a tip for beginners: "They start burning and make it taste bitter."

"Frying things is complicated," says Zappa. "You have to have the regulated temperature and not put too many things in at the same time. Also, it stinks up the house for a while."

For Zappa, 34, the holidays always meant turkey, his mom's popovers and tangerines in their Christmas stockings. For Loeb, the holidays meant typical Jewish American food -- brisket, fancy cookies and, of course, those latkes.

Zappa has been cooking for his family and friends for more than 15 years. Lately he's been studying "Think Like a Chef," by Tom Colicchio, the chef of Gramercy Tavern in New York. He's been known to drive to Phoenix just to eat and learn from Tarbell. The chef became a cooking mentor to the couple after Zappa family friend and restaurant regular Alice Cooper introduced them.

Loeb learned to bake from her mother and friends. "I still call my mom for tips," she said, though she's long been trolling Food Network's recipe site. During her years in New York, Loeb picked up her favorite coconut cream pie recipe from the Little Pie Company.

Coming together

After a couple of hours, the couple is deep into the preparations for a feast that includes the latkes, a gingery apple-quince chutney to accompany them; roasted beet salad; a brisket (Loeb's mother sent the recipe from Dallas); a pecan-crusted roasted salmon (since Loeb has sworn off of red meat); and macaroons (coconut, not almond).

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