Friday, August 13, 2010

Senior Year Beans

My sister and I grew up in a little town on the outer suburbs of Philadelphia. Ridley Park is just over one square mile in area and when we lived there the population was under 10,000. We had our own high school, distinctive because it had a girl's entrance and a boy's entrance (not enforced by the time we were there) and at school assemblies boys sat on one side and girls on the other. This was a public school, mind you, so I don't know why we were separated. But it was a great school with small class size and wonderful teachers who cared about us and who believed that good students should be allowed to rise to the top and poorer students should be nurtured and encouraged. At our school, no child was left behind.

Ridley Park High School had about 750 students in grades 7-12 and since there weren't separate junior and senior high schools, my sister and I, four years apart, were in the same building for two years until she graduated. I loved being in the same school with my sister. I saw her at assemblies or in the hall between classes. I watched her with her friends and studied how to act around boys and teachers and coaches. She was beautiful and smart and popular and involved in everything from school plays and chorus to field hockey to the Hi-Q team. I idolized her and wanted to be just like her.

The year my sister was a senior our school hosted a foreign exchange student for the first and only time. He was "Willie from Chile" and seeing him in our school planted a seed in my mind. The idea of spending a year in another country was thrilling, but alas, our school didn't send any students abroad.

Two years later Ridley Park High School was knocked down to make room for a new middle school. We were sent to a big regional high school miles away where we were separated into rigid tracks and herded into large classes with teachers who didn't know us and hadn't taught our our older sibs. I was in 10th grade, and while I liked making new friends I missed the intimacy and academic challenge of Ridley Park. I knew within months that my high school experience would be different from my sister's.

One day at the beginning of my junior year they announced over the PA that anyone interested in applying to be a exchange student should see their guidance counselor. O happy day! I applied immediately without even discussing it with my parents. I was determined to do it, partly because I thought it was the only way I'd ever get to travel to another country and partly because I had no allegiance to my new school and missing my senior year didn't mean much.

For the next few months I was focused on getting accepted to the exchange program. There were applications, transcripts, essays, medical forms and hours and hours of interviews in hushed conference rooms with men in suits. Finally I was accepted, and by spring of 1968 I knew I would be spending my senior year in Sweden.

A few weeks ago I found Swedish Brown Beans at IKEA. During my entire year in Sweden I never ate or even heard of brown beans. I emailed my Swedish brother and asked for an authentic recipe but he wrote back, "I think it is not so common anymore. Younger people in Sweden are more into Asian food." A little internet searching got me to this recipe, and frankly, they were so delicious I'd rank them in the top five of Monday Beans so far this year. If you've got an IKEA near you, pick up a bag.

Swedish Brown Beans (Bruna Bönor) 

1 bag of Swedish Brown Beans (18 oz)

Soak the beans in water to cover overnight. The next day, bring the beans to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 1-1/2 hours or so until almost tender. Mine took much longer for some reason. 

Add to the beans:

1-1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/3 cup molasses
3 Tbsp brown sugar

Simmer for another hour or so until the beans are tender. My beans took a long time to cook and I eventually had to resort to the pressure cooker, but even then the beans kept their shape and didn't get all mushy. 

Some recipes recommended adding cinnamon and nutmeg to the beans, but I left them without the spices and instead served them on cinnamon raisin toast. They were fantastic, and even though the recipe makes a lot, I lapped them up for lunch all week until they were gone.