Potato latkes a part of Hanukkah celebrations

Tonight is the start of the Hanukkah, which commemorates the victory by the Maccabees in 166 BCE that ended a period of religious persecution against Jews. The Maccabees captured Jerusalem, dedicated the Temple, and relit the Temple’s golden candelabra (menorah) with the small amount of available olive oil.

Because the small amount of oil miraculously burned for eight days, traditional Hanukkah foods are oil-based (Hanukkah comes from the Hebrew work for “dedication”). The most distinctive dish is potato latke.

Are potatoes good for you or bad for you? Advice from dietary folks seems to be constantly changing.

For years we were told to minimize eating potatoes. In 2014, Harvard School of Public Health posted “the problem with potatoes:”

“Potatoes contribute to obesity, diabetes and heart disease,” Harvard experts told us a decade ago. Potatoes “cause blood sugar and insulin to surge and then dip, . . . a similar effect on blood sugar as a can of cola.”

A few months ago, UC Davis Health posted “potatoes contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They’re rich in vitamin C, which is an antioxidant.” And WebMD posted earlier this year, “potatoes are a good source of fiber, which can help you lose weight by keeping you full longer.”

Potatoes were long considered a life-saving food source because the vitamin C prevented scurvy. They got a bad name in part during the Irish potato famine.

I guess the most coherent judgment is that the potato itself is fat- and cholesterol-free and low in sodium, but it becomes unhealthy when fried in a deep vat of oil and loaded with toppings like cheese, sour cream, butter, and bacon.

In an order of French fries, only one-fourth of the calories come from the potatoes. Better options than frying are roasting, boiling and baking.

Having written that, potato latkes need to be fried. To make latkes, grate 1 pound of potatoes and 1 small onion. If you are using good quality local potatoes, you don’t need to peel them.

Any vegetable that can be grated is usable, such as turnips, sweet potatoes, or zucchini, but white potato has become the choice among European and American Jews.

Next is the most important step to assure crisp latkes. Squeeze the grated potato inside paper towels until very dry.

Combine the grated potato with 2 beaten eggs, 1/2 cup fine bread crumbs or matzo meal, and salt and pepper to taste.

Heat oil in a pan, drop in a generous tablespoon of the grated potato, and spread thinly. I use grapeseed oil because it has a higher smoke point than the ancient Temple’s olive oil.

Fry on medium-high heat for just a minute or two per side until crisp. My vintage cast-iron skillet does a much better job at making crisp latkes than a modern no-stick pan.

Don’t crowd the pan; better to fry in batches. Remove from the pan and place on wax paper until ready to serve.

MOON Co-op is Oxford’s consumer-owned full-service grocery, featuring natural, local, organic, sustainable, and Earth-friendly products. The store, located at 516 S. Locust St. in Oxford, is open to the public every day. Check it out online at www.mooncoop.coop.

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