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Toss a burger on the grill - and hold the beef

Here in my parents' home, finding the one place where my mother and father cook as equals requires stepping outside to the barbecue.

After all, my father is the kind of chef who left the bag of chicken innards inside the bird when he tried impressing his future wife on an early date.

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But hand him a hamburger patty, and he can hold his own. So when the summer barbecue season kicks off this weekend on Memorial Day, you'll find him on the wooden deck with a giant fork in his hand and two kinds of ground meat on the grill: turkey and beef.

My grandmother and 1-year-old nephew prefer the turkey burgers. My dad and I lean toward beef. At other cookouts across America, lamb, veal, pork, salmon, tuna, and tofu burgers might sit side by side on the grill.

Cooks of any caliber can grind up nearly any protein, slap it on the grill, and almost be guaranteed success. "It's a very versatile dish," says Jane Murphy, coauthor of "The Great Big Burger Book" (The Harvard Common Press, 240 pp., $15.95). That ease and versatility are the beauty of the hamburger, America's most iconic and perhaps most commonly consumed food. Vegetarians, those watching their weight, or people who are just tired of the same old burger now have an endless assortment of varieties to choose from.

"You can certainly enjoy the traditional two-fisted meaty burger, but there's something for everyone," says Ms. Murphy. Perhaps you'd prefer a grilled mustard-dill turkey burger or a salmon burger wrapped in grape leaves?

Coauthor Liz Yeh Singh offers her own tuna burger with wasabi mayonnaise. (See recipe.) And from the ocean's depths, recipes for crabmeat, scallop, shrimp, and lobster burgers are also included in the book.

Even the basic beef burger can be spruced up. A cast of top chefs consulted by Murphy and Ms. Singh mix shallots, chives, Worcestershire sauce, capers, and peppercorns into their burgers.

The hamburger has come a long way since its American debut at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. In the era of the Atkins diet, even the bun is optional.

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As for condiments, forget about ketchup or mustard squeezed from a plastic bottle. Creative burgerphiles can find inspiration in any ethnic cuisine: Top a grilled-chicken patty with guacamole, a turkey burger with pesto, or a lamb one with garlicky Argentine Chimichurri sauce.

There's not much to cooking a burger. Some like them thick; others thin. Some prefer the ease of gas grills, but, in my opinion, hot charcoal is better for quick cooking. And whatever its form, Murphy and Singh say there's no reason to knead the meat or pack it tightly. Just form a patty gently between your hands.

The fancier the burger gets, the more challenging it becomes for barbecue novices like my brother, who just bought his first grill for his new home. He represents another generation of culinarily challenged men in my family who must prove their skill at outdoor grilling.

Asia tuna burgers with wasabi mayo

1-1/2 pounds tuna steaks
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons peeled and minced fresh ginger
2 tablespoons sesame oil
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup chopped scallions
(white and green parts)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Dice half the tuna into 1/4-inch pieces. Mince the other half. Combine diced and minced tuna, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, soy sauce, scallions, salt, and pepper in a large mixing bowl. Form into 6 patties, about 1-inch thick.

Lightly oil the grill or a skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the burgers until browned on both sides and to the desired degree of doneness, 5 to 7 minutes total. (The middle can still be reddish pink.) Serve with Wasabi Mayo, tomatoes, lettuce, onion.

Serves 6.

Wasabi mayo

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
3 tablespoons minced scallions (white and green parts)
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon wasabi paste or powder

Mix all ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings. Spread mayo on hamburger bun and serve with tuna burgers. Any leftover mayo will keep, tightly covered, in the fridge for up to a week. Makes about 1/2 cup of mayonnaise.

- From 'The Great Big Burger Book'