Food & drink: Bargains on a blanket

Fun picnic spreads for about $5 a person

Life’s a picnic<br>Nothing says summertime like a picnic in the park, and there’s no better place to stock up on affordable fresh eats and inexpensive treats than the Sacramento region’s plethora of farmers’ markets. Ants not included.

Life’s a picnic
Nothing says summertime like a picnic in the park, and there’s no better place to stock up on affordable fresh eats and inexpensive treats than the Sacramento region’s plethora of farmers’ markets. Ants not included.

Diorama and Photo by Andrew Nilsen

Summertime is all about eating alfresco. We can all dream of silver champagne buckets packed with ice by Jeeves-like butlers, wicker hampers full of pâté and fine cheeses and baguettes with tiny pickles and fancy mustards, silver salvers of lush strawberries with clotted cream and perhaps a little croquet on a manicured lawn.

But let’s face it: We’re not members of the British aristocracy, food prices are spiraling out of control and Sacramento parks are a little short on the manicured lawns. Your lavish fantasy-picnic platters of prosciutto di Parma draped over ripe melon and piles of caviar—even domestic caviar—on ice are going to leave you short a mortgage payment. But it’s a steep drop to the harsh reality of Ball Park franks and store-brand soda.

What’s an epicurean to do? Rethink the picnic for the already-spent-your-tax-rebate, mid-recession, $4-plus gas summer. A few quick tips for budget picnics: Steer clear of big stores like Costco and Smart & Final. They seem cost-effective, but you’ll end up with reams of paper plates and vats of mustard you won’t use up for years. Bring non-breakable, non-disposable plates and cups from home; rely on the random packets you’ve amassed over the years for condiments; and make your own drinks. A gallon of homemade sun tea takes two minutes to make (place tea bags in water, set in sun), probably costs less than a dollar, and is more refreshing than bubbly, high-fructose corn-syrup water. Finally, keep your picnics local; Sacramento’s regional parks are unparalleled places to spread out a blanket or take over a table.

Here are three ways to build a fun spread for around $5 per picnicker:

Fair market value: Looking for the perfect lazy Sunday afternoon? Get fixings at the Sunday morning farmers’ market at 8th and W and head across the street to Southside Park to enjoy them. (A caveat: Southside lacks grills, so if you want to cook, try not-too-far Land Park.) Make pork or lamb burgers from Bledsoe Pork’s ground meat (a bargain at just $4 per pound for the pork), or spring for bratwurst for $6. Pita bread from Davis’ Upper Crust, in lieu of buns, will set you back $3. (Alternatively, get local cheese from Pedrozo and dense sourdough rye from OctoberFeast.) Greens for a big salad shouldn’t cost more than $5 (make vinaigrette at home and bring it in a jar). There’s even wine on offer at the farmers’ market now, though you’re probably not supposed to drink it in the park. For dessert, you can’t beat summer fruit, whatever’s in season: say, a combination of peaches and blueberries, with some torn mint leaves.

Banh mi up: The lazy picnicker can let someone else make the sandwiches. At Huong Lan or other Vietnamese sandwich shops, for just over a Jefferson per person (that’s a two-dollar bill, for those of you not up on obscure currency denominations), you can pick up banh mi—stuffed with meat, pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro, and jalapeño slices. A sandwich on its own does not a picnic make, but practically next door to Huong Lan, you can trawl through S.F. Supermarket for fresh shredded green papaya at just over $1 per pound, to make your own salad (dress it with fish sauce and chili sauce); $1.29 bags of shrimp chips and other crunchy snacks; or big tubs of those rolled wafer cookies, filled with chocolatey goo, for $2.69. (The trick here is not to get so excited about all the inexpensive stuff that you overload your cart, so go in with a sawbuck and a shopping list.) If you have a little left over, spring for a six-pack of coconut soda or some cold beer to cool down those jalapeños. Refreshing and not too heavy, this makes the perfect beach picnic; head to Discovery Park, the American River Parkway or the sandy beach at Sac State’s Aquatic Center.

Pan Mediterranean: The people of the Mediterranean are famed for what Italians call cucina povera—in English, yummy cheap eats. Start with Spanish tortilla de papas (like a potato frittata) consisting of eggs ($2.50 a dozen) and a couple of pounds of potatoes ($2)—peel, thickly slice, and precook them (either by boiling, or, more luxuriously, in olive oil). Make it all into a big flat omelet, cut into wedges, and you’ll feed six to eight people for $5. Serve with tomato-basil salad: $5 worth of tomatoes, salt and pepper, and a handful of garden herbs. (You’re growing your own herbs, right? If you like food and don’t like spending a lot of money, you should be). For nibbles, try crackers or crudités and white bean dip: rinse a can or two of white beans and puree with garlic, lemon, olive oil and lots of parsley. If a picnic doesn’t seem like a picnic without a sandwich, try pan bagnat. Like a niçoise salad in sandwich form, it’s actually better slightly squished and soggy. Get a long loaf of Italian or French crusty bread ($3), split it open, and fill ‘er up with oil-packed tuna (another $3), olives, sliced hard-boiled eggs, chopped fresh parsley—whatever. As for what to drink, get yourself a bottle of red Two-Buck Chuck and some fizzy lemonade and make cheap, cheap, cheap tinto de veranos. Take it all to East Portal Park, replete with deep-green lawn, enormous shady trees, and bocce courts (which can be rented; go to for details, or a schedule if you just want to watch league play rather than springing for the use fee).