Okay, I've started you on your levain journey, and hopefully you have a good basic idea of how to begin. But the thing about a starter is that it's a long-term relationship. Or at least it can be...
One of the pleasures of Springtime in Appalachia is the promise of fresh, foraged ramps. Prized for their bright scallion-garlic flavor, ramps can be substituted for either of these better-known alliums, though traditionally they are lightly fried with potatoes, bacon, or eggs. A tip for these preparations: infuse the fat you will be using with the ramps by adding them early over low heat, saving the greens for later. After ten minutes of infusing, remove the ramp whites from the skillet, roughly chop, and add back in later after the potatoes or eggs are done, along with the finely slivered greens. Many foragers in our neighborhood simply bring a box of Ritz crackers, a can of Spam, and a pocketknife with them on their ramp-hunting forays and enjoy them right out of the ground. These "East Tennessee Canapes" are a little harsh on the breath, so be sure you don't mind offending the company you keep for the rest of the day if you indulge in this surprisingly delicious down-home delicacy.
All of these are delicious options for consuming ramps, as is pickling them, drying out their greens and crumbling them into a jar of kosher salt, and countless more (if you know a method for preserving or simply enjoying ramps that I have unjustly omitted here, please share it with us in the comments before they disappear for the year!). The only problematic thing about foraging for ramps is that a patch of them can only maintain itself if less than a tenth of it is harvested, since they take so long to reproduce and are very difficult to propagate. All of this means doing more with less (you would have to find a very large patch to harvest a jar's worth of pickled ramps responsibly) and storing them properly. For optimum shelf life, be sure to leave the dirt on their roots, wrap them in a layer of paper towels, enclose them in a plastic bag, and keep them in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. Clean them as you use them. One option we have recently discovered for preserving ramps past their shelf life is to pair them with their first and truest love: bacon. Only a few tablespoons of minced ramps are needed to infuse a slab of homemade bacon. Even better, the curing process preserves the ramp's unique flavor better than the drying and pickling methods we have tried, which tend to introduce off flavors and slimy textures, respectively (it also keeps better than either, if frozen, and utilizes the entire plant). Obviously, smoking bacon is preferable, but roasting it in a slow oven is perfectly acceptable
Be sure to choose a piece of pork belly with a fairly equal amount of fat and meat that will fit snugly into the type of plastic bag you will be curing in. 1-gallon zip top bags are usually ideal for slabs of belly weighing 3 to 5 pounds, but this depends in part on thickness (if in doubt, take a bag with you to the meat counter and ask them to cut it to size). As for the curing salt, though many of the alarming studies published in the last decade about the dangers of nitrates in cured meat have been called into question by more recent research, if it makes you nervous don't use it. You will be missing out on some "bacony" flavor and the pink-red hue most bacon takes on. If you choose not to smoke the bacon, try substituting dried chipotles or a teaspoon of smoked paprika for some smokiness.
Thoroughly wash, dry, and trim to fit inside your zip top bag:
One 3-5 pound slab of pork belly (skin on or off)
Place in a rimmed baking sheet. Thoroughly combine in a bowl:
1/4 cup kosher salt
(2 teaspoons Instacure #1) **
2-3 heaping tablespoons minced ramps (whites and greens, about 4-5 plants)
2 teaspoons freshly ground dried chiles (Guajillo or Puya)
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
Add the mixture to the pork belly and thoroughly coat all sides with the curing mixture, being sure to rub it into any crevices on the underside of the belly (There should not be very much cure left). Place in the ziptop bag, wash your hands thoroughly, and add to the bag:
1/4 cup sorghum or maple syrup (you can use honey, but be sure to add less as it is sweeter)
Close the bag, removing as much air as possible, and squish the sorghum around with your fingers until it looks evenly coated. Place on a rimmed baking sheet or plate and place in the refrigerator for 7 to 10 days, turning the slab over every day to make sure the belly is envenly exposed to the briney syrup that will start to pool in the bottom of the bag. When the slab is noticeably firmer to the touch, remove it from the bag, thoroughly rinse off every bit of cure (do not worry if some imbedded flecks of pepper and ramp remain), dry with a paper towel, and put it back in the refrigerator uncovered overnight so the outer surface of the belly dries even further (this helps the smoke flavors penetrate better).
After the belly has been cured, you have a few options: a slow oven (200-250 degrees F), hot smoking in a grill or smoker (preferably under 250 degrees F), or cold smoking. For those of you who have a cold-smoking apparatus, I am thoroughly jealous, as this will allow you to infuse the bacon with smoke over the course of an entire day or even longer without rendering all of the fat out of the belly. For the rest of us, hot smoking and oven roasting are perfectly satisfactory. If you are using a grill or purpose-built hot smoker, just be sure to keep an eye on the temperature and keep it from rising too high by adjusting the flow of air. Soaking your wood chips (hickory and apple wood are my favorites) in water will help keep the humidity up and hopefully keep you from having to open the lid to add more. Obviously, lower temperatures means a longer cooking time and more smoke flavor. Regardless of which method you use, the slab should reach 145-150 degrees F at it's thickest point. In my smoker, this takes about two and a half hours. Regardless of how long it's been smoking, do not go over 150 F as the fat is more likely to start rendering and the meat will begin to dry out. For those worried about undercooking pork, please keep in mind you will be cooking the bacon again after it's been sliced.
Once optimum internal temperature has been acheived, remove the slab to a wire rack and cool at room temperature until it is safe to put in the freezer or refrigerator. If your slab still has the skin on, this is the absolute easiest time to remove it (just lift the edge and work a knife into the softened layer of fat underneath). Cool the slab for an hour or two for easier slicing. Be sure you take the slicing slow and that your knife has a nice edge on it before attempting.
As the bacon has been quickly wet-cured, it will keep like store-bought, packaged bacon (about a week or two) or almost indefinetly bagged in the freezer. Just be sure to keep as much air out of the freezer bag as possible (vaccuum sealing is perferable).
I can't wait to use this stuff on a BLT later this Summer! Ripe heirlooms, homemade crusty bread, arugula greens, and ramp bacon sound like a season-defying delicacy not to be missed... More to come on that.
** For those of you who like and are comfortable making nitrate-cured bacon, Instacure #1 is readily available from online retailers and should always be used in place of any product that claims to contain saltpeter, or any product that does not reliably contain a standard percentage of active ingredients (often marketed as Pink Salt or Sel Rose).