Sometimes a great food idea seems to bubble up from several sources at once -- and why not? Culinary inspiration often comes when chefs are playing in the kitchen. They all have the same toys, after all -- ingredients and techniques. When chefs start putting their spin on a specific technique, invention begins. It seems that lately, chefs around town have been playing with flan, but not for dessert.
Vegetable flans -- yes, they can be as delicious as they sound -- have appeared on several restaurant menus in recent weeks. At La Cachette, a simple leek flan was served with Dover sole. At Bastide, an eggplant flan was part of a three-way version of the vegetable that accompanied trout with almond sauce. And at Chloe, a parsnip flan with wild mushrooms started as a main course but evolved into an appetizer, prettied up with a microgreens salad.
It’s a concept that doesn’t even take getting used to. “People think of flan as the Spanish dessert with caramel, or creme caramel in French,” says Jeff Osaka, co-chef of Chloe, “but flan is simply a slow-cooked custard containing eggs, cream or milk and any kind of flavoring you like. We happened to go with parsnip because of the season, but you could use other vegetables.”
Alain Giraud of Bastide, who has made flans with white or green asparagus, was dreaming up side dishes to serve with trout with an almond-based sauce when he made an eggplant flan.
“I was playing with the idea of trout and almond, and the eggplant provided a bridge between these two things. I love to play with an element and do it several ways, so we did an eggplant caviar or puree, crispy eggplant chips and the flan. The flan is wonderfully silky and very agreeable, not grainy. It’s an interestingly different flavor and consistency in your mouth.”
One reason chefs love to serve vegetable flans rather than savory souffles is that they can be made ahead and kept warm or rewarmed. This is important when something else on the plate requires last-minute attention, as is the case with many fish dishes.
The home cook also can take advantage of the relatively easygoing nature of this delicately flavored, melt-in-your-mouth preparation.
“You can cook them in advance slowly,” says La Cachette’s Jean-Francois Meteigner of his beautiful pale-green leek flans. “Then reheat them in the microwave. Unmold the flans, cover them in Saran wrap and put them in the microwave at the low setting.”
Meteigner says vegetable flans are great dishes for kids, nourishing and fun. “You can do variations. You can use carrots, you can use celery root.”
The parsnip flan at Chloe is served with a generous portion of sauteed wild mushrooms. “The earthiness of the mushrooms and the sweetness of the parsnip pair well,” says Osaka. “It was created to fill a need for a vegetarian item, but it would go well with shellfish too.”
If you’ve made egg custard, you can make vegetable flans. Prepare and puree the vegetables and flavorings such as garlic, shallots and seasonings. Combine with eggs or egg whites, and cream or milk. Bake in a bain marie, or water bath, in a medium oven until set but still tender.
“When you make a vegetable flan,” says Giraud, “you have to be careful to keep the vegetable flavor but not let it be too watery.” The proportions of egg and dairy products and vegetables all affect the outcome, but flans are fairly forgiving, and if you’re the experimental type, play around like the pros do.
For instance, you can riff on Meteigner’s leek flan recipe. Just cook and puree about a pound of another vegetable -- carrots or celery root, as he suggests, or even broccoli or asparagus.
Add a small amount of reserved cooking liquid or milk (depending on the vegetable), if necessary to puree, and substitute that for the pureed leeks.
Your reward will be a rich, smooth custard whose creaminess highlights the natural sweetness of the vegetables, a dish with an elegance all out of proportion (in your favor) to its ease of preparation.