I recently came across some gorgeous early black figs in the grocery store and although we are still in the heat of summer, I was instantly transported to fall in Umbria. Fall in Umbria is truly a magical time. The frantic summer season packed full of festivals celebrating food, art, and history give way to what is really important to the region. Namely, making amazing wine and olive oil. The region still holds a handful of significant food festivals each fall dedicated to such important local treasures as Umbria’s earthy black truffles, chestnuts, black celery, and, of course, the grape and olive oil harvest, but things settle down each fall as folks prepare for winter. The arrival of fall is also reflected in local outdoor markets, which are now overflowing with pears, apples, quince, plums, and my favorite fall fruit, figs.
Although I never had the opportunity to enjoy the taste of a ripe, luscious fresh fig until I was an adult, figs have become a personal favorite of mine. Since the fresh fig season is so short, I utilize them daily when they’re available by making jams, mixing them with apples or pears in fruit tarts for our farmhouse guests, or as an appetizer wrapped in prosciutto and grilled.
One of my favorite fig preparations is this tasty, unique pasta dish. It’s yet another easy pasta dish that comes together in mere minutes, but since you need fresh figs and their season is so short, it has become a special annual treat for us.
The combination of the sweet figs and salty prosciutto works amazingly well in many recipes. Here, pasta serves as a vessel for chopped figs and prosciutto that have just barely cooked in a little hot olive oil, flavored with onions and garlic. A pinch of red chili pepper and some cracked black pepper add a little heat, while fresh parsley and lightly toasted pine nuts add color, texture, and freshness to the completed dish. I offer grated cheese at the table, preferably Pecorino Romano, although grated Parmesan is also acceptable.
You can use any variety of figs for this recipe, as long as they’re fresh. I’m lucky enough to have a wild green fig tree growing in the field behind my house in Umbria, so they’re my go-to, but I also like to use black figs as shown in the photos and they are delicious also. Pick plump figs that feel soft—not mushy—with no bruising, wrinkling, or splits. Ripe figs may be covered with a whitish bloom, which simply lets you know they’re at their peak. You can wrap figs individually in wax or parchment paper and store them in the refrigerator for two or three days, but they’re best used at room temperature. When you get them home from the market, gently wipe the skins with a damp cloth and trim off the stem and a thin slice off the bottom before you chop them for this recipe, to ensure you don’t have any unpleasant hard bits in your completed dish.
When I am in Italy, I use local prosciutto made in Umbria, called Prosciutto di Norcia, but any good quality prosciutto will do. Do have it sliced thinly, though, so it doesn’t overpower the subtle sweetness of the figs. I’d also discourage you from adding any additional salt to this dish apart from salt in the pasta water, since prosciutto is quite salty to begin with.
Note: I prefer a long stranded, dried pasta such as spaghetti, stringozzi, or ciriole (traditional Umbrian pasta varieties) for this dish. You can also use a short pasta such as fusilli or penne if you prefer.
To toast the pine nuts, you can either use the oven or skillet method. For the oven, spread the nuts on a baking sheet and bake at 350°F, stirring occasionally, until golden-brown, 5 to 10 minutes. For the skillet, cook the nuts in a dry skillet over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until lightly golden brown, about 3 minutes.
Since there is no liquid other than olive oil in this pasta dish, it is helpful to reserve a small cup of the pasta water before you drain the pasta. When you mix the ingredients together you can use the pasta water to loosen the “sauce” and ensure it is not dry and instead lightly coats the pasta.
Deborah Mele 2018
- 8 Thin Slices of Prosciutto, About 6 Ounces, Divided
- 4 Tablespoons Olive Oil
- 1/2 Cup Finely Chopped Onion (About 1/2 Medium Onion)
- 2 Garlic Cloves, Minced (About 2 Teaspoons)
- 1 Tablespoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
- 1/2 to 1 Teaspoon Red Chili Flakes
- 8 to 10 Medium Fresh, Ripe Figs, About 2 1/2 Cups Chopped
- 1 Pound Pasta of Choice (See Note Above)
- 1/3 Cup Chopped Fresh Parsley Leaves
- 1/3 Cup Lightly Toasted Pine Nuts (See Note Above)
- Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese
- Preheat oven to 400°F.
- Place two slices of prosciutto on a baking sheet.
- Bake the prosciutto until crispy, about 7 minutes then cool to room temperature.
- Once cool, crumble the prosciutto into pieces and set aside to garnish the completed pasta dish.
- Roll the other 6 slices of prosciutto up lengthwise, and then thinly slice into strips and set aside until needed for the sauce.
- Place a large pot of lightly salted water on to boil.
- While the pasta water is coming to a boil, heat the oil in a small pot over medium heat until lightly smoking, then cook the onion, stirring, until it is soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
- Add the garlic, sliced prosciutto, pepper, and chili flakes and cook, stirring often for about 4 minutes.
- Add the figs, stir gently to mix and lower the heat to medium-low, then continue to cook until the figs begin to break down, about 4 minutes.
- Keep warm.
- Cook the pasta until it is "al dente" following the package instructions, then drain, reserving a small cup of the pasta water.
- Return the pasta to the pot and empty the fig and prosciutto mixture on top.
- Place the pot over medium high heat, and stirring constantly, add as much pasta water as is needed to lightly coat the pasta strands, usually about 1/4 to 1/3 of a cup.
- Once the pasta is piping hot and well mixed, add the parsley and toss.
- Serve the pasta in individual bowls, topped with a sprinkling of the toasted pine nuts, and crispy prosciutto crumbles.
- Pass grated cheese at the table.