What Can’t Kale Do?

Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

On the roof of the Ansonia, Drew Ramsey has laid out a green spread. There’s kale-kiwi gazpacho with a kale garnish (spicy); a Red Russian–kale salad (hearty); a lacinato-kale chiffonade (refined); and a gloppy, lime-green concoction called kale-onaise, which—according to the recipe in Ramsey’s latest book, Fifty Shades of Kale—combines two cups of chopped kale with sea salt, garlic, mayonnaise, and both the zest and juice of one lemon (surprisingly delicious). “It’s a lot of kale,” Ramsey says. “I really love my leafy greens, but kale is my muse.”

Ramsey, a 39-year-old assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, splits his summers between his practice in New York (“I consider myself a psychodynamic psychotherapist in general psychiatry”) and his farm in Indiana, where he currently grows 50 varieties of kale, per his book’s title. “I trolled the Internet and found every variety that was for sale. There’s reds, there’s pinks, there’s white kale. I have one called Walking Stick kale that grows up to six feet tall, and the kale kind of floats off the top.” He pulls out his phone to show me pictures of his garden as one might show pictures of his child. “I have this one variety that’s amazing. The leaves are two feet long, a deep blue-green, and it just has this shimmer to it.”

Is kale really worthy of such ardor? To Ramsey, the answer is obvious. It was farmed in ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt and by the Middle Ages had become popular in En­gland and Scotland, where the word meant “dinner” (whether it was actually being served for dinner). By the end of that era, it was one of the most common vegetables in Europe, making its way to the New World in the 1600s with the early European settlers. During World War II, Britain encouraged kale cultivation in the “Dig for Victory” campaign. So among its other virtues, kale did its part in the defeat of Fascism.

And yet, somehow, postwar, the plant was snubbed. For 60 years, it was just a hippie side note, a humble food too practical to inspire, the less sexy cousin of the decidedly unsexy cabbage. It wasn’t until the farm-to-table movement began to cast about for “vintage” food varieties that kale reemerged for its spectacular comeback. Managing to hold on longer than the fly-by-night fiddleheads and fair-weather ramps, kale was embraced by food-as-fuel superfood devotees and farmers’-market aficionados, who will eat anything that can withstand a New England frost. (Fact: Cold weather actually makes kale sweeter.) The plant may not be the daintiest vegetable—it’s a known digestion regulator for a reason—but it’s certainly durable, one of the few leafy greens you can eat raw, sautéed, steamed, fried, and baked. “People have been asking ‘What’s the next kale?’ ” says Chris Ronis, co-owner of Northern Spy Food Co. “I’ve heard Brussels sprouts and collard greens, but they don’t have the versatility. You can do almost anything to kale. And any incarnation outsells everything else on our menu, sometimes combined.”

Earlier, downstairs in the small kitchen of the cork-lined office where he meets with his patients, Ramsey demonstrated just how wondrous the plant can be. Using a tiny Fit & Fresh blender that works in fits and starts, he threw a handful of leaves into the machine and hacked them to a pulp.

“When I was in medical school, we thought of the brain as this very static organ, in the sense that you get 100 billion brain cells when you’re born, and you take care of them, and you still lose some, and that’s it,” he says. “Now we understand the brain is this very dynamic, neuroplastic organ. You’re always forming new brain cells and new connections. That has very exciting implications for food.” He spreads some kale-onaise over a hunk of baguette and adds a sliver of grass-fed Cheddar cheese, the better to aid his nervous system. “Your brain makes up 2 percent of your body weight, but it consumes 20 percent of everything you eat. By chang­-ing your food, you change genetic expression and actually change the way your brain functions.”

Kale is not the only plant that Ramsey grows (“Our purple okra is out of control”), and it’s certainly not the only food he thinks has mind-bending potential. But Ramsey elevates it above its vegetable peers because of its nutrient density (“Two cups of kale has only 66 calories, and you’re going to get over 250 percent of your vitamin C, 400 percent of vitamin A, 20 percent of your folate, 10 to 20 percent of your calcium—a great dose of nutrients linked to better brain health”); its ability to promote “gut health,” sending positive signals from our bowels to our gray matter; and its chemical composition. “Swiss chard is a fine leafy green,” Ramsey concedes. “But compared to kale, it’s a total wimp. Same thing with spinach. Spinach just pales in comparison. It’s like #FirstWorldproblem: Which leafy green to eat? But kale has the big families of phytonutrients, 45 different flavonoids, dozens of different carotenoids.”

Five Shades of Kale

It’s hardly surprising that Ramsey has gotten drunk on kale. In a section titled “Naughty and Nice,” Fifty Shades has recipes for a kale pisco sour, a green Bloody Mary, a cherry-kale Campari, and a kalejito. There’s also one of Ramsey’s personal favorites, a recipe for a kale-infused “Lacchiato”—“It’s been my fantasy. I keep waiting for Starbucks to call me and have Lacchiato be my first licensing agreement.” Not that all his forays into kale experimentation have been successful. He once tried to make a smoothie out of only the stems. “That was no good. I took it too far.”

While Ramsey takes heart in kale’s current pride of place on New York plates, he knows the infatuation might not last. “I fear kale backlash. I’ve had some great experiences with kale in the city, and I’ve also had some that are just not a good representation of the plant.” As a way to make kale a permanent way of life, he’s petitioned to make October 2 National Kale Day. “You know, there’s National Doughnut Day. Why not solidify kale’s place in our palate?” In his psychotherapy sessions, he often “prescribes” kale to his patients as a way of improving mood. If this were not enough, he says it has libido-improving qualities as well, since its slow release of carbohydrates combats the adrenal fatigue that can lead to a low sex drive. The original e-book had a “kale-rotica” essay in it “about a love affair with a kale plant that I wrote late one night.”

Up on the roof, it’s starting to sprinkle, and so, our plates cleared, we head downstairs to make a blueberry-kale smoothie for dessert. In the elevator, a woman eyes our stacks of plates and asks, “What’s for dinner?” Ramsey gives her a winning smile.

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What Can’t Kale Do?