Food & drink: Bargains on a blanket
Fun picnic spreads for about $5 a person
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 www.eastportalbocceclub.com for details, or a schedule if you just want to watch league play rather than springing for the use fee).