What can you buy for ten dollars at the farmers market?
Whenever I go to the farmers market, I make an effort to optimize my spending as much as possible, trying to get the best value or assemble the most interesting variety for my dollar. In recent months, this has evolved into a “ten dollar challenge” — a little game I would play each Sunday.
Aside from being mindful of my own spending, another reason for this game was to show my busy professional friends how it’s possible to buy fresh food at a reasonable price, and eat a more healthy diet without breaking the bank. Especially in a city like Sacramento, California, which is blessed with two fantastically diverse farmers markets on Sundays.
The first and better-known is the Sacramento Central Farmer Market, located underneath Highway 50 between 8th Street and 6th Street. Spanning two city blocks, this state government parking lot is transformed into a veritable town square each Sunday morning, stocked with seasonal vegetables, fruits, and nuts, grown conventionally, organically, or with no spray. Cheeses and meats also abound — including oysters, rabbit, and in the summer, live crayfish. Several vendors offer olive oil, cut flowers, potted herbs, and baked goods. It’s a place where you’re equally likely to bump into your neighbor or coworker, as you are a local politician making their rounds and greeting constituents.
Most items at the market range between $1.00 to $2.50 per pound. But the prices get even lower a mere block away.
On the corner of Broadway and 5th Street is the unofficial Sacramento Asian Farmers Market. It is quite the charming sight — walking into this densely packed assembly of tables and tents is to be suddenly transported to some far-away bazaar. Multiple languages crash into your eardrums from all directions as you squeeze your way past feisty grandmothers of various East Asian and South Asian ethnicities, each pulling their own grocery basket and eager to hunt for the next bargain. Here, you can buy freshly pressed soy milk, heaping bunches of Thai chili peppers, or that bitter melon you’ve always wanted to experiment with. The name of the game is price and quantity, much like street markets in Asia. This is one of the true gems of the Sacramento food scene.
Both markets are substantially lower in cost than the specialized, boutique street markets that operate in Sacramento’s Downtown and Midtown during the weekday. But here, you’re not going to find folk bands or food trucks or a place to sit down and sip a latte — both are working markets for serious shoppers.
If you’re lucky to have a great farmers market in your town or neighborhood, I invite you to try out this little game on your next shopping foray. What can you convert out of ten dollars?
Here’s how I fared:
Long beans have become a favorite go-to vegetable for me. They are versatile for sautés, stir-fries, or even soups, and unlike string beans, they require no additional processing. Cut them into the size of corn kernels, and cook them with corn and diced yellow squash for a nice succotash. I’ve even included them to my potato and bacon scrambles for breakfast to add some greenery.
Above: I continued my Asian pear kick, and stocked up on cherry tomatoes — which were $0.50 per pound at the Asian market, sold by a middle-aged Asian woman who referred to me and every other customer as “honey”. Aside from the scallions, garlic, and red potatoes, the notable additions here are the quart of fresh soy milk ($2.00) and a pack of fried tofu ($2.50).
Above: Pomegranates made their debut as autumn carried forward, although this early crop was exceedingly disappointing in taste. Green chard, corn, roma tomatoes, and button mushrooms rounded out this week’s ten dollars (well, with two dimes in change).
Above: This $10.00 batch came entirely from the Asian market. I like picking up kale, because of its versatility but also for its durable shelf life in the refrigerator. The tomatoes I wound up dicing and freezing for later use, while the hefty daikon radish went into soups and stews.
Above: Apples finally make their appearance in Northern California this season. The apples and the red potatoes both came from the same vendor at the main farmers market, who was selling these pre-bagged batches for $3.00 each, or $5.00 for two bags. I also went double-kale this week.
Above: A twist on the typical ten-dollar haul. Sonoma County is better known as wine country, but it is also home to dairy producers like Spring Hill Jersey Cheese. At $8.00, this block of jack would go nicely in omelets, but also stretched over several other meals such as breakfast wraps, morning scrambles, and appetizer bites. The green peppers and sweet basil were $1.00 each.
Above: A busy week meant I still had much of the previous Sunday’s produce on hand. I needed some carrots for a chicken soup, however, and found this vendor with rainbow carrots. But some poor arithmetic (Sunday morning, pre-caffeine) resulted in the entire $10.00 budget being blown on the carrots, at $2.50 per pound. At least they were no-spray, and the shapes and colors were fun — in the future I might look for these to steam or grill, and serve whole as a visually appealing side dish.
Above: Green tomatoes make great side dishes, sliced thick and sautéed in olive oil, its extra acidity and pucker nicely countering more savory flavors. The eggplant I would dice and use to thicken pasta sauces, while the cabbage would keep for several weeks, slowly hacked away to bulk up soups and stews.
Above: I frequent this mushroom vendor often enough that the seller, Teresa, and I usually manage a quick hello and greeting before she has to tend to other customers. Her hair, streaked with red highlights, and her cheerful disposition make her a friendly sight at the market.
The dill, coming from another stand, would be used on scrambled eggs for breakfast, and salmon and chicken dishes for dinner. The summer squash I sliced and used in oden, delicious Japanese fish-cake soups that made for easy dinners in the increasingly cool autumn nights.
Above: As autumn verges on winter in Northern California, citrus make their appearance at the market. These beautiful Meyer lemons almost look like plastic models. The eggs are from a producer in Manteca, further south in the Central Valley. The no-spray rainbow chard went for $2.00 a bunch.
Above: We’ve gone through our ten rounds of ten-dollar buys, but here’s a bonus photo. This bag of navel oranges went for $5.00 for a ten-pound bag. Corn were a surprise sight, so I grabbed some to cut up and freeze for later use. No-spray chard for $2.00, and a bulb of garlic for $1.00 round out this perfect ten-dollar Sunday run.
Sacramento Asian Farmers Market
Sundays, 8:00 a.m. to roughly 11:30 a.m.
5th Street and Broadway
Sacramento, California 95818
Find on Google Maps
Story: Ben Young Landis
Photography: Ben Young Landis