Photos by 
Jessicarobyn Keyser
Jessicarobyn Keyser

How a Freak House Fire Led to Tons of “Spinolata” (or Spinach Gremolata) and Gratitude

by 
LaVonne Roberts
April 23, 2021

On June 13, 2020, my daughter and I moved back to Jersey City from Manhattan when New York City was declared the pandemic’s epicenter. (As if that meant we’d be much safer, but hey, we were all just doing our best.) 

We were exhausted. I had just carried the last box in and tipped the movers. "We need to unload the spinach and parsley from the car," I told my daughter. I looked over at her lying across our sofa, still wrapped in moving plastic. Above her head was one of our sweet seven-pound Morkies, a Maltese Yorkie mix, and curled up in her arms was our second Morkie. "OK,” I smiled, “but just a short break." We had just moved into a brownstone with a tiny garden, and I was excited to think that something green could grow.

But it took almost no time at all for our safe haven to fall apart on us. 

Two hours later (yes, two hours!), an electrical fire ripped through the apartment so fast that we only had time to grab the dogs, my laptop, and my phone to call 911. Standing in the street, we marveled as fire-fighters spilled out of the six trucks filling our block. With incredible synchronicity, teams assembled with hoses and pickaxes. A neighbor brought my daughter flip-flops as we stood in disbelief, watching as smoke billowed out the windows. We lost everything. My daughter had just turned 22 a few weeks earlier. I couldn’t stop thinking about the new clothes I just bought her for her birthday. 

Then I thought about the spinach and parsley in the car. I know — I was surprised they popped into my mind at that moment as well. But it became my mission to find a home for the greens because at a time when the world was crumbling beneath me, it gave me a sense of control.

No items found.

Luckily, friends in Brooklyn invited us to stay with them, which was a brave invitation back when COVID-19 had everyone confined to their homes. They have two daughters -- ages 10 and 12,  who love referring to my daughter and me as “the Gilmore Girls” because we were both in college until recently.

I used to think of parenting as an insular thing until I became a part of this group. Overnight, I became part of the family, and came to understand the value of a “village.” I took the kids to school, read Rebel Girls at bedtime, and cooked dinner for the whole crew. In turn, they included us in everything from Father's Day to birthdays, and even helped us move when we found a new home. My friend's daughters cooked with me often, including when I taught them to make “spinolata,” a concoction I invented. Spinolata, or spinach gremolata,” could be the difference between a bland and unexciting dish to something alive and bursting with flavor!  The best thing is, it only takes five minutes to make, and you can use it with everything from an omelet to salmon to soups.

Cooking allowed me to say thank you in ways that words failed. It helped me work through the devastating after-effects of the fire by focusing on others. On the day I left, my friends gave us a key. I texted later in the day to say that I left several jars of my spinolata in their freezer. It gave me comfort knowing that my salvaged greens brought some joy to the people who gave us a home. 

Sometimes, it takes losing everything to discover what you need. A year ago, these people I call family were casual friends. My time 'quaranteaming' reminded me how relationships born out of the most challenging situations are a silver lining. While 2020 wreaked havoc on our lives and those of everyone around us, the measure of what I learned is so much greater than what I lost.

It seems wrong to say that I'm happy the fire threw us together, but I am.

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Ingredients

4 cups Fifth Season baby spinach

3 de-germed garlic cloves, finely minced

Zest of one lemon

1 tsp lemon juice 

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 tsp kosher salt

1/4 tsp pepper, more to taste

Pinch of chili flakes — optional

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Ingredients

4 cups Fifth Season baby spinach

3 de-germed garlic cloves, finely minced

Zest of one lemon

1 tsp lemon juice 

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 tsp kosher salt

1/4 tsp pepper, more to taste

Pinch of chili flakes — optional

Ingredients

4 cups Fifth Season baby spinach

3 de-germed garlic cloves, finely minced

Zest of one lemon

1 tsp lemon juice 

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 tsp kosher salt

1/4 tsp pepper, more to taste

Pinch of chili flakes — optional

Directions

Spinolata can be made in a food processor, or simply chop up the ingredients and stir it up in a bowl — your choice! Some people prefer to remove stems. I don’t unless the stems are extensive. 

By Hand: 

Place chopped spinach, garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Give a stir. Taste. Add more lemon juice if you like. If you want a looser consistency, add a little more oil. Add a pinch of chili flakes for heat if desired.

Using a Food Processor:

Place garlic in a food processor and pulse until chopped. Add oil, salt & pepper, and lemon juice. Pulse again, until uniformly combined but not too smooth. Add spinach and lemon zest. Pulse again. Taste and adjust salt and lemon juice. Add a pinch of chili flakes for a touch of heat. Add more oil for a looser consistency. Don’t over-process. The spinolata should be coarsely chopped. 

Notes

1. Store in a sealed jar in the fridge for up to one week.

2. Use the best olive oil possible to elevate the taste.

About the Author

LaVonne Roberts

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