Make It Ahead with Christine Ayers

The Farmhouse's Executive Chef Christine Ayers

Summer 2017

Make it ahead with Christine Ayers

Slaving over special meals in the hours before guests arrive can leave you feeling exhausted, and keep you from enjoying the fruits of your labor, and precious time with your guests. Here are some of the tricks The Farmhouse’s Executive Chef Christine Ayers uses to optimize time in her kitchen, so she can relax with her guests. If you make it ahead with Christine Ayers’ advice, you can too!


Whether you are a special occasions person or looking to prepare great fresh food restaurant style all of the time, Chef Christine recommends that you have to have a plan. “If you wait to plan your shopping list while you are pushing the cart in the market, it’s too late. Plan your menu about two weeks ahead. Try to pick something for four of the days per week that you can commit to. If the grocery store is going to have a sale on chicken and London Broil, work that in. It keeps the budget reasonable that way. If you are having a party for 10 people, it might not make sense to pay $24 per pound for Halibut, but you might want to do that for that special dinner for two. You’ll have to budget for that.”

Stock Your Pantry

“Lugging groceries is exhausting,” says Chef Christine. “I never do it right before a dinner party. I avoid it by keeping certain staples in my pantry at all times. When I shop a little bit at a time, shopping becomes an adventure, not a chore, and I can take the time I need to ask vendors for advice about new products and techniques. I organize my staples according to cuisine style. So I have sections for Western cooking, which include spice rubs for marinated and barbecued ribs, as well as other cuisines such as Mediterranean, Chinese, Spanish, French, American and South American. I’ll talk about each cuisine in this blog series. Because it’s summer, let’s focus now on Mediterranean.”


During summer, an herb garden is a must. It can be in window boxes, or urns on your back porch. A Mediterranean menu is great for summer, as so many enjoy cooking on the grill outdoors. For this menu, Christine recommends as follows:


Thyme, Marjoram, Lemon Thyme, Rosemary, Basil, Dill, Coriander, Sage, French Lavender, Oregano & Parsley 

Above, Executive Chef Christine Ayers inspects The Farmhouse’s seed to table crops of heirloom vegetables, from its Back Forty non-GMO gardens. She includes them in the Farmhouse’s menu as part of her commitment to sustainability.

“Tomatoes” are a staple in Mediterranean food. Plant them. Yellow, beef steak and cherry. You’ll thank me.”


Smoked paprika, saffron, fennel seeds, bay leaves, dried chili peppers, white & black peppercorns, cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper, Dijon mustard, bread crumbs, good balsamic vinegar, excellent extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), red wine vinegar, cider vinegar, flavored balsamic vinegar reduction such as pomegranate, nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews, pignoli), honey, canned beans (black, cannellini, pink, garbanzo) pasta, lentils, cous cous, clam juice.


Marinara sauce, marinara with meatballs and Italian sausage, chicken stock, seafood stock, shrimp, basil pesto, raviolis, tortellini, garlic bread, parmesan cheese (or any good grating cheese), lemons, limes, butter, garlic, shallots, onions, celery, eggs, sopressata, quince paste.

Shop Markets You Trust

“My mother still drives to Newark to get her Grana Padano and mortadella. I take after her.”

Christine is loyal to those vendors who have earned her trust. They earn it by consistently stocking fresh produce, meat, fish and dairy.


“Do not go to a butcher where the meat is oxidized in the window, or a fish market that smells bad. Every market has to be clean,” warns Chef Christine.

“Whether a fish market looks fresh all or just some of the time is a big tell,” she says. “An abundance of primarily frozen fish is another one.” That kind of stocking usually means the supplier is holding onto fresh fish as long as they can, and then freezing it to avoid throwing it out. “You may not get the freshest fish that way.” Chef Christine also looks for a place that has selections that include both whole and fillet fish, and offers the service of filleting the fish of your choice for you. “I also look for a nice oyster and clam selection, along with seasonal items such as stone crabs, wild salmon, halibut, soft shell crabs, black cod and sable fish.”  She believes in the importance of sustainable food production, and for that reason has located a some very good suppliers, such as Musky Trout Hatchery in Asbury.  Metropolitan Seafood in Lebanon does an excellent job.

Its nice to buy a good European style butter which you can get at a specialty cheese shop, including Valley Shepherd Creamery in Long Valley and Bobolink Dairy in Milford for cheeses and butter. Chef Christine notes that they do old style artisanal breads from an ancient strain of gluten free wheat so the those who need their bread gluten free can shop there.


“I love them, but you have to be careful to pick good ones,” says Chef Christine. “If they have produce that is not indigenous to the area, or that have stickers, it is always suspicious to me. Just because you see it at a farmer’s market does not mean that it is just picked.”

Chef Christine is partial to just a few local farmers markets. They include Melick’s Town Farm in Oldwick, Profeta Farms in Readington, and Tradition Farms in Asbury.


Christine recommends that if you do not have propane or a gas grill, always have a bag of charcoal, lighter fluid and matches on hand. “I like a charcoal grill better than the others,” she says, “so I always allot an extra 30 minutes to the cook time for the charcoal to heat up.”

“I love to grill in the summer,” says Christine. “I prepare my grilled vegetables early in the day, and platter them. I pick my tomatoes the morning of, and never refrigerate them. I use them fresh and at room temperature. My guests have them sliced with cheese and a glass of wine when they arrive.”


I make both non-alcoholic beverages, and some with some kick too. They all start with the freshest fruit. I cut up peaches, plums and cherries, and put them in sealed containers in the freezer. I use them as ice cubes by pouring seltzer over them, and for those who enjoy it, some vodka as well. I might put in some coconut water too, depending on the fruits I mix in.


“I don’t start cooking the protein until my guests arrive. It turns into an activity that everyone gets to experience, and there is still lots of other food about for everyone to enjoy.”


As a child, we never ate corn on the cob with the main meal. It was so sweet, it was made as a desert. After dinner, my siblings and I would run down to the garden and pick fresh corn. In the meantime, my mother would put up a pot of water to boil. Everyone would shuck the corn, and cook it for just 6 minutes in lightly salted water. It was so sweet and fresh, nothing more was needed. Today, if I eat corn that is not fresh picked, I put milk and some sugar in the water to improve the taste.


“Peaches were also a big activity for my family in summer,” says Christine. “We would pick peaches on a late Saturday morning, cut them up, put them in huge leftover olive jars and pour a jug of cheap wine over them. We’d leave it at room temperature in the garage until dinner. That was our delicious sangria. Of course, afterwards, any leftovers would have to be refrigerated. We NEVER bought peaches in November. For us, they came directly off of the trees.” 


Grilled Ancho Spiced Shrimp with Corn, Black Bean, Pepper, Pear Tomatoes, Avocado Cumin Lime Sauce

Marinade  (Make 2 weeks ahead)

1 lb. Ancho Chili, Dried
1 lb. Pasilla Chili, Dried
3 qt Sugar
3 qt Water

Remove stems & seeds
Combine sugar and water, reduce by 1/3
Add peppers and cook for 30 minutes until soft
Puree in a blender until smooth
Cool and refrigerate

This will last in the refrigerator for 4 weeks

Avocado Cumin Lime Sauce (make 2-3 days ahead and refrigerate)

5 Avocados, ripe
1/2 cup Lime Juice
1 1/2 Tbs Cumin, Ground
Salt/Pepper to taste

Peel and remove seed from avocados
Combine all ingredients and blend until smooth
Store in airtight container

Corn, Black Bean, Bell Pepper, Pear Tomato Salad
(Make 2-3 days 
ahead and refrigerate)

1 large Spanish onion, fine dice
1 Tbs Garlic, chopped
2 Red bell pepper, small dice
2 cups Corn, cut off the cob or frozen
2 cups Pear tomatoes
2 cans Black Beans, canned, 16z
4 cups Arugula
1/2 cup Cilantro, chopped
Oil as needed
Salt /Pepper to taste

Dressing (This can be prepared 1-2 weeks ahead with refrigeration)

4 cups Olive Oil
4 Tbs Dijon Mustard
2 cups Red Wine Vinegar
1 medium Onion, diced

Combine onions and vinegar, macerate for 30 minutes
Add mustard, olive oil, and blend until emulsified

Sautéed Vegetables (This can be prepared 2-3 days ahead & refrigerated)

Sauté onions, garlic, corn, bell pepper
Set aside to cool
Add black beans.

Day of

mix tomatoes, cilantro, arugula, corn & bean mix, with dressing

Grilled Shrimp (2 days ahead)

Peel and devein U15 shrimp and refrigerate

Day of

Marinate the shrimp in the ancho marinade
Grill shrimp for 5-7 minutes until done
Place atop the salad and serve avocado cumin lime sauce on the side for dipping

Grilled Steak Hunter’s Style

Steak of your choice: Porterhouse, NY Strip, London Broil, Flank Steak, Skirt Steak, Filet Mignon

Marinade in refrigerator (make 5 days ahead)

1 cup Red Wine Vinegar
¼ cup Olive Oil
¼ cup Garlic, chopped
3 Tbs Thyme, fresh, chopped
3 Tbs Oregano, fresh, chopped
2 Tbs Smoked Paprika

Mix all ingredients together
Rub meat with marinade
Marinate for 2 hours
Grill meat to desired temperature

Vegetables (Can be prepared earlier in the day and kept at room temperature)

2 Red Bell Peppers, deseeded
2 Yellow Bell Peppers, deseeded
2 Beefsteak Tomatoes, halved
2 Vidalia Onions, sliced, ¼” thick
4-10 depending on size, Mushroom caps, Shitake, Portobello, or Crimini
Oil, as needed
Salt & Pepper to taste

Season all vegetables with oil, salt, pepper
Remove skins from the peppers
Slice all grilled vegetables, mix
Set aside at room temperature
Serve aside or on top of steaks

Grilled Garlic Bread (make 4 days ahead & refrigerate)

2 loaves Italian Bread, cut in half lengthwise
I buy the day old bread on sale and keep in the refrigerator
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) Butter, unsalted, softened
½ cup EVOO, substitute for butter
¼ cup Garlic, chopped, sautéed
2 tsp Oregano, chopped
2 tsp Thyme, chopped
¼ tsp Pepper, black, ground
¼ tsp Red Chili Flakes
1 cup Parmesan Cheese

Sauté garlic, then cool it
Combine all ingredients, refrigerate
Brush bread with a little EVVO
Grill bread on each side
Spread garlic butter onto bread and put back on grill for 2-3 minutes to soak into bread

Black Currant Buttermilk Panna Cotta (This can be done 4 to 5 days ahead)

2.85 qts Heavy Cream
5 cups Sugar, granulated
24 Gelatin Sheets
4 qts Buttermilk
1.5 cups Black Currant Puree
Summer Berries (blueberry, black berry, raspberry, loganberries, gooseberries)

Bloom gelatin sheets in cold water
Heat heavy cream and sugar, bring to boil
Add black currant puree, simmer for 1 minute
Add gelatin sheets, stir well until dissolved
Pull from the heat and add buttermilk (do not add the buttermilk and continue to cook it will curdle)
In ramekins or small martini glasses, put assortment of seasonal berries
Pour panna cotta over the berries and chill in refrigerator

Currant or any berry purees can be prepared during their harvest season and canned or prepared and frozen.

I just cook them with a bit of sugar and puree.

The “Make It Ahead with Christine Ayers” series continues. Check back for her advice and recipes for canning, Indian cuisine, the autumn harvest season, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, as well as the Chinese New Year in February.

Do you have a cooking question you’d like to ask Chef Christine? Simply fill out the form below, and she will get back to you.

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