Answering your vexing culinary questions

Grilled corn cobs in the husk.
Grilled corn cobs in the husk. 

Can I eat the peppercorns off the peppercorn tree in the backyard? S. Rowling

Peppercorn trees - Schinus molle, or Peruvian pepper trees - were sold as garden plants during the late 1800s and are common on farms and in established gardens. Originally from South America, they have naturalised quickly here, and in some parts of the country are declared weeds. In France, their pink berries are dried and sold as poivre rose, or pink peppercorns, with an aroma like pepper and a sensation in the mouth not dissimilar to Szechuan peppercorns. Your tree is not, however, related to true pepper - Piper nigrum - a tropical vine from which we get black peppercorns. So it is possible to dry the peppercorns and use them as the French would pink peppercorns. A word of warning however, Schinus molle has a close relative called Schinus terebinthifolius and the peppercorns from this can cause severe allergic reactions so some would consider it a safer bet to buy the French ones.

I am buying some pans and am thinking of non-stick. What are the do's and don'ts? T. Walsh

Mostly don'ts. Don't use harsh abrasives. Don't stir food with a metal spoon. Don't store any other pans on top of them as they will scratch. Don't put hot pans in cold water. Don't clean in the dishwasher. Don't cook high-acid food over a high heat. I still have my first frying pan that I bought when I moved out of home 25 years ago. It is steel. I never wash it with soap, just steel wool. I apply a little oil when I finish washing it and it has a patina that allows me to cook pancakes without using oil or butter. During that time, I have thrown out three non-stick frying pans.

Corn: husk on or off? What is better? M. Parton

''Which'' is better. Now we have that out of the way, corn husks are a natural wrapper, cooking barrier and kitchen tie. They are also a good indication of the freshness of the cob. When first picked, the outer layer is green, slightly thick and leathery; the inner leaf is soft and yellow green. As the corn ages, the outer layers wither. This is when greengrocers start ripping off the leaves of the husk like windows on an advent calendar. Corn cobs under plastic wrap on a polystyrene tray are on the vegetable version of death row - with the priest on his way. Try grilling corn by peeling back the husk but leaving it intact. Slather the cob with butter and seasoned salt and pepper, then flavour it with some finely chopped sage and garlic. Replace the husk and secure it by taking a leaf and tearing it into strips. Tie these around the top of the cob and grill it on a barbecue over low heat until the kernels have softened.

Some time ago, I prepared a recipe with pea shoots. I have not been able to find them since. Where should I look for them? J. Lira

Some may think sprouts are hippie food, but I found an old newspaper clipping in the National Library archives with a story from the Second World War of soldiers in remote areas being fed pea and wheat sprouts that were harvested when ''half an inch long''. The story said: ''They tasted sweet, with something of the flavour of sweet corn.'' If you can't buy pea sprouts from markets or health-food stores, try buying dried peas or chickpeas from a food store or health-food store. Wash them and soak them for 12 hours, drain them and sprout them on a damp, but not wet, cloth on a tray. Snip off the sprouts in a few days when they are a few centimetres high.

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