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Lamb and beef kebabs from Julie Smolyansky's "The Kefir Cookbook" are flavored with herbs, onions and warm spices and grill up quickly. (Abel Uribe/Chicago tribune/TNS)

Burgers and hot dogs will sizzle across the country, from grand outdoor kitchens to fire escape patios as Memorial Day launches the season of grilling.

Some of those old standbys are bound to be scorched, the sacrifices we make when our attention turns from the heat of the fire to that of the talks we’ve longed to have. Finally face-to-face with friends and family normally far-flung, those burnt offerings may still do fine when we’re hungry enough for seconds or thirds.

However, we could capture that primal perfume of smoke with ingredients a bit more forgiving.

Consider a verdant green platter, not salad or raw crudites, but whole sides of charred escarole, heaped high over creamy ricotta and thick slabs of sourdough bread, with grill marks the envy of any steakhouse rib-eye. These toasts will hold up all night if you can.

The recipe can be found in the new cookbook, “Eat a Little Better: Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World,” by Sam Kass, who rose from personal chef for a couple who lived on the South Side of Chicago named Barack and Michelle to senior adviser for nutrition policy in the Obama administration. More than 90 simple yet stunning recipes help you eat better, not right, writes Kass. Along the way, he explains how small, delicious steps can add up to big change.

If meat is a must on the Memorial Day menu, as it is for many, an all-American story from another beautiful new release, “The Kefir Cookbook: An Ancient Healing Superfood for Modern Life, Recipes From My Family Table and Around the World,” brings us kebabs.

Ground beef and lamb — since it’s still technically spring — are mixed with fresh herbs, onions and warm spices, then shaped like flattened sausages over skewers. They cook as easily as hot dogs or burgers, and they absolutely eat easier, what with the handy sticks delivering smoky flavor both foreign and familiar.

Author Julie Smolyansky is the CEO of Lifeway Foods, perhaps best known for its kefir. In a refugee, immigrant, rags-to-riches story, Smolyansky’s parents founded the company by first making the tangy cultured milk at home. But the kebab recipe, Uzbek shashlik in the book, comes from her stepfather, who married her mother after her father died.

Smolyansky was 28, but it was just one year after she’d lost her dad, so she was still in mourning. “(T)he first time I met my new stepfather, I was downright mean. But when I saw how happy he made my mom, when I realized he offered companionship and friendship, I put my selfish attitude aside and I gave him a shot,” she writes. Her inclusion of his recipe and the story behind it is a touching testament to tolerance, forgiveness and now an epic extended family.

Like kefir, shashlik (which means skewered meats across a huge swath of the world, from Eastern Europe to Central Asia) has ancient roots. A global street food, shashlik is essentially like barbecue.

If weather won’t permit outdoor grilling, or it’s simply not an option, you can always make these recipes in your kitchen. Use a cast-iron grill pan if you have one, your cast iron skillet if not.

CHARRED ESCAROLE AND GRILLED BREAD WITH RICOTTA AND PINE NUTS

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 10 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

From “Eat a Little Better” (Clarkson Potter, $32.50) by Sam Kass, who writes: “The sturdy leaves can stand up to the heat of the grill, retaining their slightly meaty texture as they wilt, and the green’s flavor goes from bitter to exciting. Heaped on ricotta-topped, garlic-rubbed toast, there’s nothing better.”

2 tablespoons grapeseed or vegetable oil, plus more for the grill

2 heads escarole

Kosher salt

6 thick slices country-style bread

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 large garlic clove, halved

1 1/2 cups fresh ricotta cheese

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

1. Heat a gas or charcoal grill to high heat. Pour a little oil on a rag, grab the rag with tongs, and rub the oil onto the grill grates to prevent sticking.

2. Halve the escarole lengthwise, rinse the halves under cold running water, and shake them over the sink so they’re no longer very wet. Drizzle the grapeseed oil over the escarole, separating the leaves so the oil drips between them but keeping the heads intact. Season the escarole generously with salt.

3. Grill the escarole over direct heat, turning occasionally, until the outer leaves are charred in places and the inner leaves are tender, 6 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board.

4. While the escarole is grilling, brush both sides of the bread with the olive oil, season with salt, and grill over direct heat, turning occasionally, until charred and crunchy but still soft in the middle, about 6 minutes. Transfer to serving plates. Rub the cut end of the garlic against one side of each toast. Top with the ricotta and a pinch of salt.

5. Coarsely chop the escarole and put it in a large bowl with the lemon zest and juice to taste. Season with salt to taste, then pile the escarole on the toasts. Sprinkle the pine nuts on top.

Nutrition information per serving: 446 calories, 26 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 32 mg cholesterol, 39 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 14 g protein, 410 mg sodium, 7 g fiber

UZBEK SHASHLIK (KEBABS)

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 8 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

From “The Kefir Cookbook” by Julie Smolyansky (HarperOne, $32.99).

1/2 pound ground beef (70 percent lean)

1/2 pound ground lamb

1 medium yellow onion, grated

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1/4 cup chopped fresh mint

2 teaspoons smoked paprika

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon Maldon sea salt

Pinch of cayenne pepper

For serving:

Tzatziki

Hummus

Eggplant baba ganoush

Pita bread, sliced tomatoes, lemon wedges and rice pilaf (your favorite)

1. Soak wooden skewers overnight in cold water.

2. In a large bowl, combine the meat, onion, herbs and spices, and mix well. Let it stand for 1 hour at room temperature.

3. Take about 2 heaping tablespoons of the beef and lamb mixture and shape it into a flat sausage shape. (Long and oval works well.) Slide a skewer lengthwise through the middle of the kebab, repeating until all the kebabs have been skewered.

4. Fire up your outdoor grill to very hot. Wipe the grill grates with a bit of oil, and grill the kebabs on one side, making sure they brown and do not stick to the grill, 4 to 6 minutes. Flip the kebabs and finish cooking until cooked medium, about 4 minutes. (If you don’t have an outdoor grill, you can use a grill pan or cast-iron skillet.)

5. Serve with tzatziki, hummus, baba ghanoush, pita bread, sliced tomatoes, lemon wedges and rice pilaf.

Nutrition information per serving: 217 calories, 13 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 69 mg cholesterol, 4 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 19 g protein, 764 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

 

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