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Signature Dish: Beer Braised Pork Belly by Chef Carolyn Johnson

Chef Carolyn Johnson runs the kitchen at 80 Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts, where she keeps close ties to her local producers and is always ready to nurture new talent. Her commitment to excellence in both her cuisine and kitchen management style has recently garnered national recognition.

A native of California, Johnson went east to attend Wellesley College, where she majored in economics and studio art. After graduation, she decided to pursue her interest in the culinary arts, and soon found herself working for Stan Frankenthaler at Salamander in Cambridge and, later, Chris Douglass at Icarus in Boston’s South End. She credits both chefs for teaching her the importance of local produce, now the central element of her own menus. After a stint with Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier at Arrows Restaurant in Ogunquit, where she fondly remembers the onsite herb and vegetable gardens, she took a job at Rialto in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she worked for seven years. She attributes much of her inspiration and approach to cooking and cuisine to Rialto’s chef/owner, Jody Adams, who quickly became a mentor and a friend.



Johnson calls her style “rustic” and says she does not like to add “a lot of bells and whistles.” However, this certainly does not preclude the possibility of intricacy. She focuses on a clean presentation that is approachable to her guests, while ensuring that “there is a depth of flavor, technique, and process that go into everything.”

At 80 Thoreau, Johnson has the best of both worlds: a neighborhood restaurant filled with locals, that is also a destination restaurant in the national spotlight. “The town of Concord and the surrounding suburbs were really jonesing for a restaurant of this caliber for a long time,” Johnson points out. “There’s a lot of people who regularly go into Boston and Cambridge to dine, so they’re happy there’s something in their neighborhood where they can have the same quality of cuisine.” Her blend of rustic simplicity and refinement is drawing in crowds.


Johnson’s love of fresh, local produce is matched by a passion for beer. She enjoys brewing her own at home, preferably hoppy beers, like IPA, which are her favorite. For her signature dish, Beer Braised Pork Belly, Johnson braises the meat in dark, malty beer, whole grain mustard, coriander, and fennel. After the braising is done, she cuts the meat into slices and grills them, which is one of her favorite cooking techniques. 
“I go back and back to it with different meats all the time,’ she says. “The beer gives it this great toasty malty flavor, and the mustard is a great way to cut through the rich fattiness of the pork.” She notes that the dish (in some form) has never left her ever-changing menu.



Pork belly    2lbs.
Carrots    2, peeled, medium dice
Onions     2, peeled, medium dice
Celery stalk    1, medium dice
Fennel bulb     1, medium dice
Garlic      6 cloves, smashed
Fennel seeds     1 Tbsp, toasted
Coriander seeds    2 Tbsp, toasted
Dijon mustard   ¼ cup
Whole grain mustard  ¼ cup
Malty beers (i.e. porter)  2 12-oz bottles
Chicken stock    1 quart
Thyme     6 sprigs
Bay leaf    1


To Prepare
1. Heat a pan large enough to hold the belly over medium heat. Season the pork belly liberally with salt and pepper.
2. Add a small amount of vegetable oil to the pan, sear the pork belly on both sides. Transfer to a large roasting pan.
3. Pour some of the rendered pork fat out of the pan, add the diced vegetables and garlic. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Cook the vegetables over med-high heat, stirring frequently until well caramelized.
5. Add the fennel and coriander seeds, both mustards, bay and thyme. Stir well.
6. Add the beer to the pan. Stir well and cook until liquid is reduced by half.
7. Add the stock and cook until reduced by half again.
8. Pour the liquid and vegetables over the pork belly. Cover the roasting pan and cook in a 350 degree oven for 2 hours. The belly should be very tender when finished cooking.
9. Let the belly cool in the cooking liquid overnight.
10. Remove the belly from the chilled liquid, making sure to scrape off any clinging sauce and vegetables. Put the vegetables and cooking liquid into a saucepan. Heat, skimming any fat off the surface and then strain out the vegetables. This can be used as a sauce for the pork.
11. Cut the pork belly into slices.
12. Grill the slices until charred and crispy.


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