When Charlie Gailunas harvests zucchini from his lush Catonsville garden, he might overlook a specimen camouflaged beneath a canopy of leaves. "Sometimes you miss one," he says.
By the time he finally discovers the hidden squash, it may have grown to baseball-bat proportions, far beyond the zucchini's capacity for tenderness and a pleasing, mild taste.
Gailunas, a retired hospital administrator who has cultivated his 700-square-foot garden for 30 years, doesn't toss the zucchini, nor does he pawn it off. He makes Gagutz, a Sicilian soup introduced to him by a neighbor's mother who lived in Little Italy.
"She was a fount of Old World information," Gailunas says.
There are summers when a subsidy paid to home gardeners not to grow zucchini may seem like a great idea to weary recipients of rampant garden gifting. Not this summer. Rising food costs have rekindled appreciation for the backyard abundance that helped Gailunas, 68, and his wife feed six children.
Zucchini is an exemplary addition to the contemporary Victory Garden. The prolific summer squash grows quickly and is high in vitamins C and E, as well as antioxidants and minerals. At its unadorned best when picked at 6 to 8 inches long, zucchini, small and large, also lends itself to countless preparations, from fritters to relish to muffins.
Along with melons and cucumbers, zucchini belongs to the cucurbita family and is technically a fruit. Only female squash flowers set fruit, leaving all of those male flowers for a feast of lightly battered fried blossoms.
The zucchini shares its ancient origins in the Americas with all squash varieties. European explorers introduced zukes to Italian gardens, where they were further developed and became a culinary staple throughout the continent. Today, seed catalogs abound with zucchini varieties, including hybrids as round as a bowling ball, ridged to better hold dip, and nearly black in color.
When she moved to Parkville last year, Meghan Murphy, 29, tilled a patch of earth wrapped around a corner of her new home for the garden she never imagined she would crave. Growing up in Mayfield, Murphy had watched her mother tend a beautiful spread, but her own inner gardener didn't sprout until adulthood.
Now an avid cook who chronicles her creations on her blog at culinarynovice.blogspot.com, Murphy, the granddaughter of a greengrocer, delights in her small garden, including two productive zucchini plants.
Thanks to her mother's Italian lineage, zucchini figured prominently in the family's diet, Murphy says. "Especially in summer, it was a big deal in our family." A simple primavera dish consisting of tomatoes, fresh zucchini and onion sauteed lightly and tossed with pasta, olive oil and basil was "one of our favorites," she says.
Zucchini's ample fruiting habits appeal to Oxford resident Sarah Mayock, who is growing zucchini for the second year in the plot she and her family keep in nearby Trappe. The squash is a versatile addition to the Mayocks' year-round menu. "You can use zucchini in anything," Mayock says.
Only a few spoonfuls remain of the six pints of last year's zucchini relish, but Mayock has already put up more to take her husband and three sons through the next year. The relish, tangy with pickling spices, is as yummy on hamburgers and hotdogs, or crackers and cheese, as its counterpart made with cucumbers.
Zucchini also takes the form of a sweet treat for the Eastern Shore family. "We made plenty of zucchini bread last year with raisins and nuts. I freeze them to keep them over the winter," Mayock says.
During a cooking class in Istanbul last year, Baltimore restaurateur Donna Crivello learned to make Zucchini Fritters, served as mezze - appetizers. Prepared similarly to potato latkes, they are "very nice," perhaps more delicate or more tender than latkes, Crivello says.
She has added the fritters to the summer menu in her Charles Village Donna's restaurant, where zucchini figures as well in ratatouille, tapenade and roasted vegetables. At home, "I love it grilled and roasted with a little salt and pepper," Crivello says.
In her Havre de Grace garden, Hildie Joy Mathis, 48, grows zucchini that she and her mother use to make bread, stromboli and Zucchini Bake.
"I like Zucchini Bake because it's unusual," says Hilda S. Mathis, 85. "And the zucchini bread with crushed pineapple is spectacular; nice and moist and easy to make."
In his garden, Gailunas harvests two portofino hybrid zucchini and slices off two star-burst shaped samples. The taste is mild, but wonderfully redolent of the season and ripe for a simple evening meal.
But that doesn't mean that the zucchini that escape Gailunas' garden gaze until they're enormous are beyond redemption. For Gagutz, Gailunas removes the zucchini's watery pith and sautes the rest, along with onions, peppers, tomatoes and spices to create a summer stew, "made magical," he says, with parmesan.
Find recipes for Zucchini Fritters and Zucchini Relish at baltimoresun.com/backyardharvest