Hanukkah food & gifts | Take heart: Add good oils to Hanukkah menus

As Jews we often use our dinner plate to recreate and celebrate the story of our festivals. Cooking and eating are the ultimate cultural forms of observation, and Hanukkah is no exception. Deep-fried foods engulf our culinary world and commandeer our menus with latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) among the most popular.

Although Hanukkah foods are delicious, a diet rich in oil-saturated foods can leave a person feeling guilty. But these days the health and culinary worlds are preaching the perks of healthy fats. We need good fats for healthy, balanced hormones that are essential for heart health, weight loss and weight maintenance. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, found mostly in plant-based oils, have found a place in the discussion.

As a health educator, I’m often asked about oils. And so, what better time than the “festival of all things oil” to address healthy oils for our Hanukkah plates.


To heat or not to heat

During the time of the Temple only the purest olive oil could be used. This meant oil from the first pressing of the olives and none other. Today, we have no restrictions on the kind of oil we use to light our menorah or cook our meals. But not all plant-based oils are created equal.

When cooking, it’s important to understand that some oils can handle heat while others lose their nutritional content in the cooking process. An oil’s smoke point, the temperature at which it starts to burn, is what determines which should be used for cooking at different temperatures. Oils with the highest smoke thresholds (listed below) are best for frying your Hanukkah delights.

Olive oil

Olive oil has long been touted as the world’s healthiest oil. Extremely rich in monounsaturated fats, vitamin E and carotenoids, this oil plays a vital role in helping prevent heart disease, fighting some types of cancer and lowering blood pressure.

Olive oil is most flavorful and nutrient-dense when it’s raw and “cold-pressed.” The “juice” (referred to as the oil) is simply pressed out of the olive. For maximum flavor and nutrition, enjoy olive oil cold in a vinaigrette or drizzled over pasta. Avoid buying olive oils that are labeled “pure olive oil,” “light olive oil” or just “olive oil.” These oils may not be pure and won’t offer the health benefits of the cold-pressed variety.

The smoke point of olive oil is around 250 to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and most fried foods are cooked at 350 or higher, so using olive oil for frying will strip its lovely natural flavor and beneficial enzymes. For this reason, save your cold-pressed olive oil for a healthy Israeli salad of chopped cucumbers and tomatoes. It will make the perfect accompaniment to the latkes that you fry in more appropriate oil.


Coconut oil

In recent years coconut oil has moved up the oil-food chain and now stands second only to olive oil for its health benefits. Although it has saturated fat, coconut oil is rich in vitamin E, vitamin K and iron. It also contains lauric acid, recognized for preventing heart problems caused by high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. Today’s darling of the oil world, coconut oil has a high smoke point, making it your go-to oil for frying latkes to a perfect golden brown. The slight coconut flavor will delight your taste buds as much as it impresses your company.


Canola oil

Canola oil, made from the rapeseed plant, is both high-heat and budget friendly, making it the perfect oil for deep frying those decadent homemade sufganiyot. Yes, the fat adds to the caloric count, but canola oil is a great source of essential omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Most people get their daily dose of omega-6s from everyday foods. How-ever, it’s more difficult to get enough omega-3s, which have been linked to the prevention of heart disease.


Other oils

There are many other delicious oils with great health benefits, but they tend to be pricey so you may want to use them sparingly. Avocado, safflower and grapeseed oils are high-heat lovers and offer more exotic options to canola oil for your stir-fry. Flaxseed, almond, walnut and hempseed oils are all high in omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, but they are best used cold. Add a tablespoon of one of these to your morning smoothie for their anti-inflammatory benefits while enjoying their wonderful nutty flavor.

Just as the light from the original flask of oil lit the temple for eight days, making it a true and enduring miracle, we should also respect the oils we use today for the nutrients they add to our bodies. So go ahead — enjoy your latkes and sufganiyot. Take heart that when making these holiday treats with plant-based oils and fats, you’re adding health to your Hanukkah traditions.

Jeannie Solomon is a wellness coach and certified chef at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City.