Percolating Thoughts

Some various thoughts that flow from one to the next:

  1. A PhD candidate in ecology once told me that he didn’t understand how people gained weight from calories. “Isn’t it just energy?” It was a rather startling reminder of just how stratified different fields of science are. I explained that extra energy is stored as fat in the body.
  2. I was listening to a Star Talk Radio episode during my run yesterday and they talked about how you have to have an energy source to make a starship start flying (that is, to overcome the pull of gravity). So I started trying to work out the science of exercise in my head.
  3. I’ve been slowly trying to understand eating for fitness. It’s pretty sad that I’m most comfortable with eating for weight loss, not for supporting physical fitness (though there are definite huge overlaps, since I don’t believe in unsustainable diets).
  4. I had one of those, “Oh wow, evolution is beautiful” moments this morning. Here’s what hit me: Our body is designed to quickly and easily provide that energy we need to overcome inertia/gravity/etc whenever we decide to move. We barely have to think about doing it. This is incredibly basic science, but it was never explained that way in high school. No one ever took our Biology class and our Physics class and said, “Here is a real-life, everyday example that matters for you: do you realize HOW CRAZY IT IS that you can just start walking right now if you want to?” (I could rant for hours about how little of our high school curriculum was made applicable to everyday life, and therefore accessible/relevant enough to really engage us in the subject matter.)
  5. I did a quick Google search and found this website that basically breaks down the whole calories become energy and fat thing and very briefly touches on the Physics of it (the potential energy/kinetic energy that our body uses).
  6. I wonder what the reaction would be if, like in the website above, schools actually taught students how to calculate their calorie needs based on their activity levels. I think it would be tremendously useful and could be done in a healthy way. There is so much misinformation out there, and high school is the perfect age to address it (here’s a really fabulous article about it). We have the information, but it’s getting buried under layers and layers of misinformation and media agendas. And if this isn’t “Biology” and “Physics” and “Chemistry,” then something is wrong with our curriculum.

Recipe: Cornmeal Pancakes

One morning a few years ago, I was craving pancakes but didn’t have any spelt flour. I don’t really like white flour pancakes for whatever reason. But I had been on a cornmeal kick, so I decided to try making pancakes using cornmeal. It turned out to be really easy to come up with a good recipe!


This is really filling – I often make half the recipe. It’s also naturally sweet.


  • 1/2 cup cornmeal
  • pinch of whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 mashed banana
  • 1/3 cup almond milk
  • 1/4 – 1/3 cup fruit – diced apple, blueberries, whatever you like


  1. Mix all the dry ingredients together.
  2. Add in the mashed banana and almond milk, and stir well. Gently stir in the fruit.
  3. Let the pancake batter sit for several minutes while you heat your skillet. You know the skillet is hot enough when, if you dash some cold water on it, the water droplets “dance.”
  4. If you are using a non-stick skillet, margarine is optional. If using a regular skillet, melt margarine for frying your pancakes in.
  5. Pour the batter onto your skillet (a full recipe makes two regular-size pancakes). Cook until you see bubbles appear, then flip over and cook on second side.
  6. Serve and enjoy!


I often eat it with a nutbutter sauce, which is super-easy to make.


  • 1 Tbs your favorite nutbutter sauce
  • 1 Tbs almond milk

Beat together with a fork. At first you’re going to think this is crazy, but keep going – you’ll eventually get a creamy sauce.



Approximate Nutrition Info

Pancakes (assuming no margarine) : 324 calories; 3.7g fat; 69g carbs; 6.4g protein

The nutrition info for the nutbutter sauce will vary based on your choice of nutbutter.

Black Eyed Pea Salad

When I started this blog, I promised myself that I wouldn’t turn it into a cooking and fitness blog. My everyday life more or less revolves around both those things, and this blog is a place to explore more unique things.

But a lot of people have asked me for this and other recipes. So – I’ll share the occasional recipe if you’ll put up with my odd ramblings on science and history the rest of the time. And because I’m me, I’m going to include what I read with the meal, because I’m pretty much always reading at dinner. Deal?

I apologize for the photo quality; I was hungry, so I just grabbed my iPhone!

This is a super-simple recipe that I made up a few weeks ago – comes together in 3 minutes, it’s filling, and for some reason it reminds me of egg salad.


Black Eyed Pea Salad

Reading with: 365 Thank Yous by John Kralik. This is one of those books that I reread 1 – 2 times a year and loan out to friends. Needless to say, I recommend it.


  • 1 cup black eyed peas (canned and rinsed, or pre-cooked)
  • 1 Tbs Vegenaise (or mayonnaise if you eat it)
  • cucumber, bell pepper, pickle – 1/4 – 1/2 cup each, diced (if you want a more mellow flavor, stick with the cucumber. But I like the depth of flavor with the pickle and pepper.)
  • dash of cayenne pepper (adjust to taste)
  • dash of sea salt (adjust to taste)
  • dash of dill (adjust to taste)


  • Mix everything together. I like to eat it on toasted tortilla.

Approx Nutrition Info:

  • 300 calories
  • 10.5 g fat
  • 38g carbs
  • 12.1g protein


The Science of Cooking: Soaking Beans

Note: After some people expressed confusion, I’ve edited this post slightly to hopefully be clearer …. Hopefully it helps. good lesson in how to write these posts. Thanks for the feedback!

Being a non-meat eater, I’m a big fan of legumes. Lentils, chickpeas, black eyed peas, beans – I love them. But despite the fact that I will happily put in the extra time to make my own applesauce, bake my own bread, and prepare my own soup stock – I’m bizarrely lazy about beans and nearly always use canned. Lentils are the exception, because they take so little time to cook. But beans? Canned all the way.

To be honest, I think it’s the soaking part that holds me back. Do I really want to make an entire pound of dried beans at a go, even if I can freeze them? Do I really want to spend an entire day or even two preparing an ingredient for other dishes?

But since it happens to be the end of the month (aka low-on-my-grocery-budget week), and I happen to have a bag of dried black eyed peas that I bought in a fit of idealism some months ago, and I happen to be mildly obsessed with a black eyed pea salad I made up last week – I decided to make them.

At first I put them in water to soak, but my online directions claimed that it’s really optional. And since I then need to let them slow-cook for 6 – 8 hours, and it was already the middle of the day, I reversed course and dumped the bowl of beans into the slow cooker.

But I was left wondering: would soaking for just an hour be a bad thing? Would it help at all? Would it be irrelevant? How does this whole soaking-beans thing work? So I started Googling, and discovered the whole “soaking beans controversy.” People in the blogosphere don’t seem to agree on soaking beans at all.

Here’s what people DO agree on: soaking beans DOES help release indigestible complex sugars, known as oligosaccharides.

But some people argue that this isn’t the most important reason to soak the beans. They say that soaking the beans beforehand lets you cook them more quickly, thereby preserving more nutrients in the beans – and THAT’S why (so they say) you should soak your beans before cooking them.

Other people argue that beans are dirty and may pick up mold spores during the production process, so it’s important to soak and wash off your beans before cooking (ironically, anti-flatulance products are based in a type of mold enzyme that aids in the digestion of oligosaccharides).

So … I did a little layperson research.

How does soaking beans remove oligosaccharides?

Oligosaccharides are on the OUTSIDE of the beans. Oligosaccharides are water-soluble. This means that when you soak the beans, you dissolve the oligosaccharides in the water. This is why everyone stresses that you should toss the soaking water when you remove the soaked beans.

As far as the efficacy of soaking beans, a study published by NIH found that the “traditional household method” of preparing beans – soaking, rinsing, then boiling – did significantly remove oligosaccharides (up to 25%), but did NOT significantly impact the nutrients and minerals in the beans (source) – meaning that you’re still getting the nutritional benefits, minus some of the oligosaccharides, when you follow the soak/rinse/boil method.

Is removing oligosaccharides really important?

It turns out that oligosaccharides aren’t just in beans – one form of oligosaccharides, known as fructooligosaccharides, are in a lot of fruits and vegetables that we eat, and is used as an artificial sweetener in Japan. Another form, mannan oligosaccharides, is used in animal feed (Wikipedia).

It’s become well-accepted in the science community that the part of oligosaccharides that we can’t digest may serve a role similar to dietary fiber in our diets, such as improving how our body handles the consumption of glucose (sugars) and helping sustain healthy bacteria in our bodies. Because of this, some people want to add in oligosaccharides to processed foods. (source and source, both from NIH)

My conclusion:

So my conclusion? Wash your beans, but don’t soak them.

Whole Foods summarizes it this way on their website: if you’re susceptible to flatulance, then soaking away the oligosaccharides may be beneficial – but you’re sacrificing the benefits oligosaccharides offer to your body. To get the best of both worlds, eat a lot of beans so that your body gets used to consuming oligosaccharides (source). As for the benefits of longer vs. shorter cooking time, it’s more complicated than “yes vs. no,” so this is a question for another day.

If you’re susceptible to flatulence, you may want to do this as a slow and steady process, slowly adding more beans into your diet so that your body can adjust. You may also want to be alert to other foods that could be contributing, such as cabbage (another source of oligosaccharides) and dairy.

For those who insist on continuing to soak their beans…..

Okay, but I’m going to keep soaking beans for now. How long do you really need to soak them for? Does it make a difference what beans they are?

Frustratingly, I couldn’t find an online study that looked at this. The research is probably out there – NIH lists several studies comparing the levels of different nutrients in beans prepared different ways – I just don’t have access to it. But the US Dry Bean Council issued official instructions for soaking beans, which you can find here.

Another option is kombu. Kombu is a seaweed that contains the enzymes needed to digest oligosaccharides. There’s been a trend recently to prepare beans by boiling them with kombu. However, I’m not sure if this means that you consume both the oligosaccharides and the enzymes to digest them, or if those enzymes break down the oligosaccharides while cooking. Therefore, I can’t speak yet as to whether this is a good solution or just another way to eliminate the oligosaccharides.

One note while we’re talking about beans: If you’re cooking kidney or cannellini beans, it’s important to boil them for ten minutes. This neutralizes a compound called phytohaemagglutinin, which can trigger food poisoning (Source, Source).

Questions From Another: Yeast

I recently started volunteering at an historic grist mill. A visitor recently came in and told me that bread dough can pull yeast from the air – that, in fact, she purposely lets her dough sit overnight so it can pull extra yeast. She says it makes the bread taste much better.

I have to be honest. Although I have a basic understanding of sourdough bread, I always assumed that yeast had a short life and you needed to bake the bread sooner than later.

This same visitor wondered aloud at what point commercial yeast became popular in baking. I promised to do some research and get back to her. Since this interested me, I thought I’d share my findings.

* Up until the 19th century, people were not really sure what made dough rise, but they understood enough to make sourdough bread. Sourdough uses naturally occurring yeast from the surrounding air. Sourdough is also known as “wild yeasted” bread. (multiple sources)

* A quote about modern baking without packaged yeast:“There’s yeast everywhere,” says Oland. “It’s wild yeast. It’s present in flour, in the air, on your skin. For bread, you create an environment where it will thrive. You create a ‘starter.’ Commercial yeast is incredibly potent and reactions happen very quickly. With wild yeast the reactions unfold more slowly over time. The bread is so much better because it slowly ferments. And that slow fermentation develops complex flavors and a variety of textures. It’s an older form of baking. It’s actually the original form of baking.” (source)

* In the late 1850s, Pasteur was commissioned by an alcohol manufacturer to learn why their beer was turning sour. As a result of this research, Pasteur proved that fermentation is caused by live yeast. He also found that mild heat after fermentation would kill the yeast (known as pasteurization). This knowledge was primarily used for beer and wine until the late 1800s, when it began to be applied to milk. (sourcesource and source)

* In the early 1860s, on the heels of Pasteur’s discoveries, bakers began to use leftover yeast from beer brewing to bake their bread. (source)

* Also in the 1860s, Charles and Maximillian Fleischmann, immigrants to Cincinnati, OH from Austria-Hungary, patented and sold cakes of compressed yeast. (source)

* By the early 20th century, cookbook recipes began specifying commercial yeast and limiting rising time to less than two hours. (source)

I must admit that I’m very intrigued by all of this. It’s funny to see the conflicting opinions of various sources – modern bread tastes better, modern bread tastes bland; modern bread is softer, modern bread has no texture. I may have to finally try making my own sourdough starter and bread.

I wonder….

Did earlier generations ever deal with frozen cucumbers? Maybe frozen cukes were the “new popsicle” in some day and age? Or maybe cucumbers were eaten before they could freeze in the winter during pioneering days?

All I know is, I’ve got half a cucumber from the back of my fridge and I’m not quite sure what to do with it.

I just googled, but all the recipes involve salting the cucumbers first …. presumably to draw out the water and freezer-pickle them.

Ah, here we go. From The Complete Cook Book (Philadelphia, 1900), by Jennie Day Reese – reproduced here from The Old Foodie:

Take six large green cucumbers, cut a slice lengthwise from each one, and with a silver teaspoon or your fingers remove the seeds and pulp, and throw the hulls in cold water until ready to use. Peel and chop coarsely two whole cucumbers, add to them the seeds and pulp of the other six and let it stand in salted ice water one hour. Cucumbers should have a thick peeling taken off of them, as they are bitter near the skin.
Now drain the water from them, add two tablespoonfuls of chopped chives, one teaspoonful of grated onion, two tablespoonfuls of chopped celery, one tablespoonful of Durkee’s dressing, one cup of mayonnaise salt and tabasco sauce to taste. Color with spinach green and freeze. When frozen stuff the cucumber hulls with it, place them on fresh crisp lettuce leaves and serve at once. It should be a light green when frozen. This is new and beautiful as well as good.

From personal experience, I can attest to why they freeze the spinach but not the lettuce. Trust me, folks, don’t freeze your lettuce.

Frozen salad boats – quite a concept.