Olive oil fuels symbolic Hanukkah cooking

Photo: Michael Kahn

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

In addition to celebrating the Maccabean victory and the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Hanukkah commemorates a small cruse (vessel) of oil that was just enough to burn for one day. The miracle of Hanukkah is that this oil burned for eight days. 

Jews around the world celebrate this miracle by feasting on sufganiyot and latkes, but not because our ancestors of that era ate donuts and potatoes. Indeed, the potato was a New World vegetable unknown back then.  So why are these foods such powerful symbols of Hanukkah? Because they are fried in oil. 

The oil that burned in the Second Temple was extra virgin olive oil. It was known back then as “beaten oil” because the olives were beaten down from the trees and crushed in baskets to release their oils. There were no refineries back then. Olive oil was the only oil during that era, and only the highest quality of that oil was allowed into the Temple.

Olives are mentioned numerous times in the Torah and are recognized as one of the cherished seven species of the land. Extra virgin olive oil is unrefined, meaning it is not processed like other olive oils, vegetable oils, or butter. Therefore, high temperatures can destroy some of its valuable nutrients and affect its unique flavor. While it can be used to sauté, it is not recommended for deep-frying.

However, extra virgin olive oil is the ideal choice for a wide array of culinary applications. Cooking and baking with this fruity, smooth, and sweet or peppery oil will enhance your food, imbuing it with special flavors. The same is true for salad dressings. For example, a 2-to-1 ratio of oil to fresh-squeezed lemon juice whisked together and seasoned with salt and pepper awakens the flavors of ordinary salad greens. And extra virgin olive oil is a luscious finishing touch drizzled on top of any cooked meats, fresh or steamed vegetables, or bread.

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Once upon a time, extra virgin olive oil was so exotic that even if your mothers had heard of it they would have had trouble finding it in their grocery stores. But these days, even your local supermarket carries several varieties and brands. 

How do you pick the one that’s right for you? I asked Marianne Prey, owner of An Olive Ovation in Ladue. She told me that the best way to select olive oil is to taste it.

“The flavors are as varied as wines,” she explained. “I prefer bold oils since I cook with garlic and spices. If I wanted an oil for baking, I would choose a lighter, more delicate one.”

Prey invites customers to sample a large variety of olive oils to find the one each likes the best. In addition to the bottled estate oils that her store carries, it also has a selection of oils on tap, which are sold by weight. You can bring in your own empty bottle or jar or purchase one from the store’s selection.

So why not start a Hanukkah tradition and make a conscious effort to incorporate this biblical oil into at least one course of your Hanukkah meal each night, in addition to latkes or sufganiyot

Before I share some menu ideas with you, let’s consider the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil. This oil, unlike many others, is actually good for you. While it won’t cure everything that ails you, it is high in antioxidants, which help strengthen the  immune system. It is also heart healthy and has been linked to lowering blood sugar levels, reducing inflammation, improving circulation and slowing down age-related cognitive decline. 

Furthermore, the extra virgin olive oil you consume is good for your skin and can be applied topically to your face and body as an excellent moisturizer.

While most pastry chefs prefer baking with butter, extra virgin olive oil can be a delicious and nutritious substitute. The following substitution chart will help you convert most of your favorite recipes that call for butter. The only instance in which olive oil will not work is when a recipe requires you to cream butter and sugar together. In those cases, only a solid fat will work. 

Here are some recipes for showcasing this special Hanukkah oil. Any or all would make a delicious and appropriately symbolic addition to your Hanukkah menu.

Happy Hanukkah!

 Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of five. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected].