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Seasonal Pantry: Fava beans — don't forget the leaves

We may never settle the question about the chicken and the egg, but when it comes to fava beans and leaves, there's no doubt which arrives first: The leaves, of course. They are sweet, tender and ready to enjoy weeks before the beans have formed in their pods.

As a culture, we are fairly new to favas. For a long time, gardeners and farmers planted them in gardens and fields because they fix nitrogen in the soil, yet they plowed them under come late spring, ignoring their culinary possibilities.

All that's changed. Today, we can't get enough young fava beans. We eat them raw, grill them, stir them into risottos and quiche, toss them with pasta, mash and spread them on grilled bread and fold them into omelets and frittatas. They are a familiar and delicious talisman of spring.

In the past few years, we've started to enjoy the leaves, too. If we don't grow them ourselves, they are readily available at our farmers markets. This year, the first I've seen are from Oak Hill Farm in Glen Ellen, which had them at the Sonoma Valley Farmers Market in mid January.

Fava leaves taste a lot like the beans, though with an earthier foundation and sturdier texture. Some people compare them to baby spinach, but I don't experience a similarity. Raw spinach can be a tad unpleasant on the palate — I'm not a fan of spinach salads, for example — because it has substantial quantities of oxalic acid that is tamed by cooking. Fava leaves do not.

When enjoying fava leaves raw, I like to cut them into a fine chiffonade by stacking or rolling several together and then using a sharp knife to slice them into thin ribbons. These ribbons are good on their own, as a garnish on bean soups and stews, stirred into risotto or dressed with salt, olive oil and lemon for a light salad. Adding a handful of small arugula leaves makes that light salad even better, as the bitterness of arugula is wonderful with the sweet, earthy fava flavor. You can also use them to make a delicious winter tabbouleh.

Whole fava leaves can be sauteed with olive oil, lemon and garlic, added to stir-fry dishes or combined with other greens and potatoes for delicious soups. When fava beans come into season, there will be a short window of maybe a week or two when we'll have both tender leaves and tender beans. Pay attention, make sure you have homemade stock and the right rice on hand — I recommend Vialone Nano — and then make one of spring's most magnificent risottos. I've included the recipe in this column, even though it is a tad early to make it.

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