It's here at last. Go on, look out your window. Sure, there may be clouds in the sky and even a little rain, but what you are looking at is the start of the best time of year - barbecue season.
The Kiwi barbecue is such a fixture during warmer weather that it's possible to walk down a street on a summer evening and smell nothing but the mouth-watering aromas of meat sizzling on a grill at every second house.
We'll all be sparking up the barbie over the summer, but how do you turn it into something a little more special? Here are some ideas: you can jazz up your food, think about your drinks selection more carefully, and even change the time you'd normally start cooking.
Barbecues don't have to be afternoon/evening events. One of my favourite things to do in summer is kick off the weekend with a barbecued Champagne breakfast.
I'm not talking about simply charring the snags earlier in the day, but a full cooked breakfast done on the barbecue. This can take a little time and thought, as you need to boil some spuds the night before, so you can slice them and cook them on the hot plate as part of the meal.
The usual suspects need to be there as well - bacon (and try to get dry-cured bacon, as it cooks better), sausages, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms and black pudding at the very least. You can also do fried bread very well on a barbecue; simply wait until everything else is cooked and then place a buttered slice of bread on the hot plate, unbuttered side down. This will soak up the oil on the hotplate and the butter will crisp up the other side once you flip it. Not only is this delicious (if a little unhealthy) but it also cleans your hotplate.
If you're having a breakfast barbie, you'll need Champagne, or something sparkling at the very least. Genuine Champagne is always gorgeous, especially earlier in the day, as it feels a little naughty, but decent sparkling wine works well, too.
Dry sparkling wines can be a touch too dry sometimes, so feel free to add fruit juice to it. Orange juice is the classic addition for a celebratory Buck's Fizz, but pineapple also works well, as does pink grapefruit. For a real touch of summer, prick a strawberry with a fork a couple of times and drop it in your bubbles. Or opt for naturally fruity bubblies, like Asti and Prosecco, both of which are readily available and surprisingly cheap.
My own pick for a Prosecco would be the Contarini, which you can pick up for less than $20. Barbecues are not just synonymous with summer, they are also synonymous with drinking, often, sadly, to excess.
So it makes sense to ensure that there are lighter alternatives available. There are plenty of reasonable low-alcohol beers, and wineries have joined the band now as well. Brancott Estate's Flight series sauvignon blanc and pinot gris are nice wines weighing in at 9 per cent alcohol, while Forrest Estate also offers a lovely sauvignon and a cracking riesling called The Doctors.
Or you could simply get the flavours of your favourite drinks by using them in your cooking. Bourbon in a marinade adds a whole new dimension to pork and ham, while dark ale is a great addition to steak. Other ideas for marinade ingredients include sambuca, Cointreau and tequila, all of which enhance the flavours of the food they're mixed with.
Having spirits on hand also means you can offer cocktails either before or after the meal, but be careful with the measurements. A good idea is to make up a jug of a particular cocktail.
Juleps are great in a jug and take very little preparation. Just muddle some mint leaves and sugar syrup (half sugar, half water) in a jug and add bourbon. Half-fill the jug with crushed ice, add more bourbon to taste, then top up with soda water and garnish with mint sprigs.
Mojitos are popular as well, as are those buckets of daiquiri mix you can buy, although they need to be prepared the night before.
Another nice accompaniment to the burgers, steaks and vege skewers is Pimms, which can also be served from a jug. Simply pour some Pimms into the jug, add lemonade or ginger ale, ice and a selection of chopped fresh fruit. You can garnish with mint or cucumber for a lovely cooling drink and it has the advantage of not being overly strong.
So, when you dust off your barbie this year think outside the square and add something new to the mix. The good times will be even better.