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“Oh hey!”

I looked up from my cart and saw, horrifyingly, that it was one of the baristas from my favorite grocery store in the city, Foragers Market. By my reaction, one might have implied that I was caught strolling out of our neighborhood porn shop with a black plastic bag in my hand. My jaw dropped, face flushed.

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It’s not that she isn’t lovely. She is. We chat in the mornings, we comment on each other’s hair. “It looks lighter! I like it!”

In any other situation, I would have been delighted to see her. But not here. Not at the mass market grocery store that’s right beside Foragers Market.

At home, I disparage this retailer and take every opportunity to avoid it. I hate the fluorescent lighting, the clinical smell, the cheese fridge…so close to the household products aisle that your $10 wedge of Gruyere tastes faintly of Clorox.

Never mind the bloated out-of-season vegetables, straight from GMO farmland. “They don’t care about the food Rodney! Please don’t shop there!”

And here I was. Busted. With a big old pile of industrial corn.

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This was very off-brand. Gene Simmons in a three-piece-suit off-brand.

I love Foragers Market. But when it comes to large volume foods with expensive ingredients, I’ve been known to wimp out. Under the veil of daybreak, I’ll slink next door and toss vats of ricotta and conventional veggies into my cart.

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It’s a momentary breakdown that happens every few months. I might as well confess my sins before another person spies me in Aisle 3, hunting for tomato paste.

My strong preference is to pay up for quality ingredients, but sometimes, particularly when I’m testing a new recipe for the kids, I can’t bear the rejection of a pricey meal. Small-batch ricotta made by hand on an organic dairy farm upstate; the season’s most tender baby zucchini, now in the early stages of harvest. “It’ll all be cooked within an inch of its death!” the voice rings in my head.

I squeaked out my justification: “I didn’t want to make a $30 lasagna for the kids. In case they don’t like it. Please….don’t tell anyone that you saw me here.”

My friendly barista told me that my secret was safe with her. “I do it too” she said as she nodded at her container of broccoli salad.

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I once told a horrible tale about suffering through month after month of vegetarian lasagna.

This is not entirely accurate.

Yes, it was the summer when I was pregnant and deluged with weekly deliveries of vegetable-filled CSA boxes. It was exhausting, but it was also thrilling – each week opening a box to something new, something fresh, plucked from the ground only a day or two before.

I don’t know how much vegetarian lasagna I made that summer but it was enough to put a spare freezer on my Amazon Wishlist. Never mind the lack of space in my apartment. Details…Throw an afghan over it and there you go, instant coffee table.

What I really should have done is gotten a food manufacturing license and started to sell them at the local Walmart. They would have flown out the door, especially given the competing options which are full of cultured Dextrose and other unmentionables.

My technique is simple – I make a quick tomato sauce – in a pinch you can use a good jarred version. But it takes three minutes to sautee an onion & carrot, add a can or two of tomato puree, season, and let it simmer while you tend to the rest.

With the sauce simmering, I cook (most often grill on my indoor grill pan) the vegetables and prepare the remaining ingredients.

Although I’ve made lasagna with fresh pasta before, it can be time consuming, and you can get great results with no boil noodles. When you’re using no boil, or oven ready noodles, you definitely need a filling that has some heft – this isn’t the time for an airy cream sauce. I cut my vegetables into thick slices, drizzle some olive oil, season, and grill then until they’re nice and charred. No indoor grill pan? Slice them the same way, and roast them in the oven instead. They’ll still pack plenty of flavor.

When the vegetables are done, all I have left to do is to mix an egg into the ricotta, and I’m ready to assemble.

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The layering is pretty simple. Here’s my rule – don’t sweat it. Even after layering countless lasagnas, I still lose track of what goes where. It’s hard to remember the order – was it noodle, sauce, ricotta, veg? Or noodle, sauce, veg, ricotta? Don’t panic! This is not life or death. As long as you have some sauce on the bottom, and leave enough sauce for the top, it will be….just….fine….

I only say this because I was once that person – the lasagna novice who was overly concerned about having the layers in the right order; I would dart back and forth from the recipe, reading the instructions once, twice, thrice. Child’s play! Now you know my secret – that with homemade tomato sauce, fresh ricotta, and grilled vegetables, you really can’t go wrong. Just do me a favor- season it well- those plain noodles need to be salted and if you’re just seasoning the fillings, the noodles will be bland.

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