Fear of Frying — A Healthy Holiday

By Carol Novis

Published December 04, 2008, issue of December 12, 2008.
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There’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news: A single latke contains about 65 to 100 calories. (And who eats just one?) The sour cream? Another 60 calories per glob. Other Hanukkah foods, such as fritters in syrup eaten by Sephardi Jews and deep fried chicken, popular with Jews in Italy, are not much of a dietary improvement. As for soufganiot, the jelly doughnuts that are popular Hanukkah fare in Israel, count on about 400 calories a pop, and don’t even think about the cholesterol and fat content. In short, a healthy and happy Hanukkah is probably a contradiction in terms.

And yet, who would ever suggest giving up the traditional holiday foods that make Hanukkah so joyful? Certainly not Phyllis Glazer and Chana Rubin, two cookbook authors who specialize in nutritious foods with a Jewish flavor. They believe that Hanukkah favorites can be just as enjoyable with a few amendments to make them healthier.

According to Glazer, co-author of “The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking” (with Miriyam Glazer) (Harper Collins, 2004), one way to make Hanukkah foods better for us may be to go back to the original sources. “After all,” she said in an interview with the Forward, “it’s not very likely that Judah the Maccabi ate potato latkes.”

As we learn from the Bible, the diet of the ancient Hebrews was centered on nuts, lentils, barley and wheat, and fruits such as dates, pomegranates and grapes. Olive oil was important, we know, because when the Jews, led by Judah Maccabi, fought against the Syrian Hellenists in around 165 B.C., the lone lamp that burned oil was said to have lasted for eight days. That is why today, so many holiday dishes are fried in oil.

And Glazer doesn’t suggest eliminating oil from the festive fare. “I’d improve the latkes. They don’t necessarily have to be made from potatoes, which give you limited nutritional benefit because you peel them,” she said. “I make them out of different vegetables, such as beets and carrots, or with lower calorie ricotta cheese. They require very little flour and the flour can be whole wheat.” In addition, she said, latkes can be served with healthy, Biblically-inspired foods. “What could be nicer than a meal of a hearty lentil-barley soup, full of fiber and protein, salad and a latke?”

She is less tolerant, however, when it comes to soufganiot: “Don’t make them. But if you must, make them smaller, and use less oil in frying them.”

Chana Rubin, a registered dietician and author of “Food for The Soul: Traditional Jewish Wisdom for Healthy Eating,” (Gefen Publishing, 2008) said, “When everyone around you is eating delicious latkes, it’s just not realistic to begrudge yourself. Have a latke or two, balanced with other food. I love latkes right out the frying pan, hot and crispy, but I make them only once during Hanukkah, using a non-stick pan so that I don’t have to deep fry. I serve latkes as the side dish, not the main course, so that we don’t eat a huge number of them and I accompany them with a protein, such as fish, because if you eat them by themselves, your blood sugar spikes. Also, I don’t use full fat sour cream: yogurt is fine.

“You can bake latkes,” she added, “but potatoes are high in starch and they tend to stick to the pan. Also, they are not going to come out crisp. Personally, I would rather have two crispy latkes out of the frying pan than four out of the oven.”

Other ways to cut the calories without cutting the pleasure include:

  • Wring out the moisture in the grated potatoes in a tea towel, so that they brown using less oil.
  • Shallow fry latkes and then crisp in the oven.
  • Try baking the potato latke batter in silicon non-stick muffin tins.
  • Remember, it could be worse. In Eastern Europe, it was traditional to fry potato latkes in goose fat.

Carol Novis is from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and has been living in Israel for more than 30 years. She worked as a writer and editor for The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz, and now teaches editing at Beit Berl College.

Ricotta Pancakes

Makes 12-16 pancakes

1½ cups whole-wheat pastry or all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1½ cups low-fat buttermilk

2 eggs, separated

1 tablespoon grated lemon rind

1⁄3 cup low-fat ricotta cheese

Cooking spray or canola oil for sautéing

Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt.

Mix together the buttermilk, egg yolks, lemon rind and ricotta. Stir this mixture gently into the dry ingredients.

With a mixer on high speed, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form.

Fold the whites into the pancake batter.

Use about ¼ cup of batter for each pancake and cook on a non-stick griddle or skillet that has been sprayed with cooking spray or brushed with a little oil.

Turn the pancakes when they begin to brown on the bottom and the edges begin to look dry.

Keep these warm by placing them in a single layer on a baking sheet in a 200 F oven.

(From “Food for the Soul: Traditional Jewish Wisdom for Healthy Eating”).

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