Rue: The Forgotten Herb
By Jim Long
In ancient times, rue was an important culinary and medicinal herb. It’s mentioned in the Bible by its Greek name, “peganon.” Rue was a common cooking herb for the Romans and commonly used in a spicy seasoning paste that contained garlic, hard cheese, coriander, and celery seeds with rue leaves. The botanical, Latin name of “Ruta” comes from Greek, translated as “to set free,” referring to its use as a chief ingredient in mixtures used as antidotes to poisoning.
Rue was also used as a strewing herb, fresh sprigs of the herb scattered on floors in the belief it would keep away the plague. It was a common herb believed to keep away witches, and that folk use evolved into the Catholic Church’s practice of dipping branches of rue into Holy water and sprinkling it over the heads of parishioners as a blessing, which earned it a common name for the plant of “herb of grace.”
Rue’s Use Today
Rue has fallen out of use in today’s cooking primarily because our taste preferences have changed. In the past, the use of an herb that imparted a bitter undertone to a dish, balancing the sweet, sour, salty, and hot flavors was important, but it is less so today.
Occasionally you’ll still find rue used in Italian dishes, mostly among Old Italian families that have passed down recipes through generations of cooks.
It’s most commonly used today in Ethiopia as both a cooking herb and an addition to coffee. I met a woman from Ethiopia last year at the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, Calif. Her booth was across the aisle from mine, and she and I started talking herbs and cooking. She inquired whether I grew rue and when I said I did but never use it, she told me how her family used it when she was growing up. She explained that rue, both the leaf and the seed, are an important addition to brewing a pot of traditional Ethiopian coffee. Since I like my coffee straight and black, with no frills, I was dubious. To prove her point, the following day, she brought a thermos of fresh coffee made with rue leaves and seed. It was outstanding, and I am now a devotee of Ethiopian coffee flavored with rue!
This heirloom herb remains virtually unchanged since ancient times. As far as I know, there has been no hybridizing or even selecting out strains of the plant. What you grow in your garden will be a direct descendent of the same plant found growing in its native habitat of the Mediterranean region and parts of Western Asia. If you want to grow rue in your garden (and I recommend you do so, if for no other reason than that it’s an excellent attractor of butterflies and home for their larvae), then you can start rue from seed or cuttings placed in damp soil.
Rue (Ruta graveolens) is an evergreen herb with delightful bluish-green leaves. It does best in full to part sun, with at least 6 to 7 hours of sunlight per day, and well-drained soil. It will even thrive in extremely dry conditions once established, but you can quickly kill the plant by over-watering. It’s hardy from upper Zone 6 and warmer. There’s no need to fertilize the plant — it’s perfectly happy in very poor soil.
While it can reseed itself — a habit I like because it’s seldom invasive — you can prevent that by simply snipping off the seed heads after it blooms. Dry the seeds for Ethiopian coffee, or share them with friends.
The Taste of Rue
Rue’s fragrance is aromatic and bittersweet, and the raw leaves have a very mild numbing effect on the tongue. The fresh leaves are less strong than the dried leaves, and the seeds have a slight hotness, too.
Rutin is the component in rue that is responsible for the bitter taste. Rutin is also found in capers, water pepper and orange peel. However in using rue, you can combine it with an acid such as vinegar or tomatoes, which somewhat dissipates the rutin and leaves the other flavors intact. The flavor goes well with spicy Italian tomato sauces, especially when combined with marjoram, basil, lovage, olives, and capers. A common practice once was to drop a few leaves in a boiling sauce for about a minute then discard them. By so doing, a minimum of bitterness is added but the other flavors in the herb are imparted.
Roman cooks used rue in a bouquet garni, tying together a piece of celery, some rue, parsley and thyme and using it to stir a sauce as it cooked, thus imparting a mild, herbal flavor to the dish.
Handle With Care
Rue has gotten a bad reputation because of its potential for contact dermatitis. Lots of gardeners have told me they won’t grow it because they fear it might hurt them. The cautions, while sincere, are considerably over-stated. It is true if you are sweaty, on a hot, humid day and picking or trimming rue, you might get a blister on your skin.
I’ve grown rue for 25 years and only one time have I ever had a problem. That one time, while hot and sweating, on a particularly sizzling, humid day, I brushed against my rue plant while weeding. Later that evening I discovered the imprint of a rue leaf on my skin. It itched briefly, less than a mosquito bite, and in a few days the rue tattoo had disappeared. Some people have said they are more susceptible and can receive a blister similar to poison ivy.
But it’s pretty easy to avoid working with the plant on such hot days; just wait until a cool morning or evening (or use caution until you know whether you react — most people don’t have a reaction at all).
While there are many folk medicine and homeopathic uses for rue, most current medical resources caution against using the herb. The primary reason appears to be the danger of using too much. Strong precautions include avoiding internal use of rue by women who are pregnant, as well as by small children and older adults who have liver or kidney problems.
Traditional French Omelette with Parsley, Rue, & Oregano
You could call this a classic, even heirloom vegetarian recipe since it has been passed down for many generations in France.
1/2 Teaspoon water
1 Tablespoon freshly chopped oregano leaves
2 to 3 Rue leaves (about 1 tablespoonful, chopped fine)
2 Tablespoons flat-leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
1 Tablespoon butter or oil
Break eggs into a bowl with the water and whip them with a whisk. Add the herbs and season with salt and pepper.
Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Pour in the eggs and using a small spatula, run it around the edges and in the middle so the egg cooks evenly. Continue to do this until the eggs are set in the center but still moist. Flip the omelette over to cook the other side briefly.
Remove omelette from the pan and add chopped fresh tomatoes, shredded cheese or other favorite fillings and fold over.
Jim Long writes and gardens in the Ozarks Mountains of Missouri. You can see and follow his gardening adventures on his blog: www.JimLongsGarden.BlogSpot.com. Jim’s books and herbal products are available at the Baker Creek Seed Store as well as through the Baker Creek Seed catalog. Questions or comments can be directed to Jim via email at LongCreekHerbs@Yahoo.com.
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