steak.
Barbecues demand more than steak and snags these days. Photo: Eddie Jim

It's time to answer one of the great mysteries of life. Are you ever allowed, under any circumstances, to put a can of beer inside a chicken and cook it on the barbecue?

No, says David Lipman, editor of Beer & Brewer Magazine. Not even on Australia Day? ''Let's just say it's not the best possible use for a beautiful, full-flavoured craft beer.''

 Lorraine Elliott the woman behind the hugely popular Not Quite Nigella website.
Blogger Lorraine Elliott: "Just don't forget to open a can of beer first." Photo: Edwina Pickles

Yes, says fearless food blogger Lorraine Elliott, who documents the process on her popular Not Quite Nigella website. But, she hastens to add, for fear of Australia Day going off with a bang, ''just don't forget to open the can of beer first''.

The other great mystery of life is why anyone would want to shove a can of beer up a chook and cook it standing upright. ''Because the beer keeps the meat really steamy, and the skin outside still crisps up in the extreme heat of the barbecue,'' Elliott says. ''But what I really like about the chicken is that it's so funny. It looks like its dancing.''

Bunnings Hardware has responded to the vertical chicken trend with a nifty BBQ Buddy Beercan Chicken Rack (RRP $9.95). ''It has a wide base that rests firmly on wire grills, and holds up to a 2 kilogram chicken,'' says national leisure buyer, Cameron Rist. ''You simply place a half-full beer can into the rack, then place the chicken over it.''

<i>Illustration: John Shakespeare</i>
Illustration: John Shakespeare

Science suggests it's not the half can of lager that benefits the chicken most, but the upright position; the can is merely used as a podium, blocking airflow into the interior so the meat doesn't dry out. But don't tell that to the true beer-lievers.

No matter what similar mysteries and mythologies swirl around our Australia Day long weekend, the barbecue itself is non-negotiable. And you don't even need to get fancy with food.

The one barbecue essential is a marinade, especially for lean meats such as kangaroo and wallaby. Make it all-Australian in honour of the day, with a sunny Australian olive oil, new-season garlic, herbs from the garden, Australian-harvested salt flakes from Murray River Gourmet, and perhaps some ground native pepperberry from Tasmania. Olives are the pre-barbie nibble of choice; Australian of course.

''Naturally processed, plump European-origin eating varieties like Kalamata have adapted well to our high elevation, cool climate conditions,'' says Robert Armstrong of ALTO Olives, near Crookwell, NSW. ''It means patriotism can taste fantastic.''

Best of all, the barbecue gives the home cook a sense of freedom and independence. You're out in the fresh air, but you're cooking.

You're not reliant on massive technology and gadgets; it's just you, the fire, and a lump of protein or a brilliant array of vegetables. It's food for the people, by the people, beer can in hand. Or, if you must, in the chook.

 

Rules for a well-done barbie

Do use additives

Keep the meat simple, then use spices, relishes, chutneys and chilli sauces to intensify flavour without adding stodge. Think harissa, sambal, tahini. Yoghurt is brilliant as a marinade.

Do get barbie-literate

Learn how hot your barbecue is by holding your hand 10 centimetre from the grill bars. If it's hot, you should be able to hold it there for up to three seconds. If it's medium-hot, up to five seconds. If it's medium, about eight seconds.

Do leave well enough alone

Don't poke and prod and flip. Cook your meat until 80 per cent done on one side, then turn and finish to your liking on the other. Use tongs rather than a fork, which can pierce the meat and spill those precious juices.

Do have a drink

Rehydrate constantly with water between drinks. For something special, serve Australian sparkling shiraz. Being red, it's good with meat; being sparkling, it's good for celebrating; and being cold, it's perfect for a summer day.

Don't just grill corn on the cob on the barbie and slather it with butter

Add that essential dude food touch by slathering it with Sriracha chilli mayonnaise and topping it with fluffy grated cheese.

Don't try too hard

We're Australian, right? We like taking things easy. Open a bag of chips, set out a bag of bread rolls and a bottle of tomato sauce for the snags.

Don't try to assimilate.

This country is made up of wonderful people from all over the world - that's what makes us interesting. So celebrate your past as well as your present. If French, throw a lamb noisette on the barbie; if Korean, celebrate with beef short ribs; and if Greek, bring a horiatiki salad, heavy on the feta. It will all be appreciated.

Don't overdo it

Judge when meat is done by touch. Relax your left hand and poke a forefinger into the fleshy part between your thumb and forefinger - that's what rare meat feels like. Spread the fingers and poke again - that's medium rare. Make a fist and press the same area for medium.

Don't forget the lemons

Lemons are crucial, whether to freshen up prawns and seafood, make vinaigrettes, add to cocktails and relishes, or heat through on the grill for their warm, dribbly juices. It's like adding sunshine to your food.