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Thinking of a Thorny Thistle? This Bud's for You!


Artichoke at a Glance
History Uses Name Origin Folklore/Oddities Medical Benefits
Growing Nutrition Purchasing Preparation Recipe

In the 16th Century eating an artichoke would be a scandalous adventure for any woman. At that time, because the artichoke was considered an aphrodisiac, it was reserved for men only. In fact, the artichoke was denied to women and reserved for men because it was thought to enhance sexual power.

Fortunately such esoteric attitudes do not prevail in the 21st Century where both men and women are privy to the pleasures of the artichoke. However, there are places around the world where people have neither tasted nor seen the artichoke.

On first encounter, this globular green monster may be somewhat off-putting. Admittedly it does look somewhat inedible. Cookbook author Faye Levy aptly describes artichokes when she says, ". . . they might appear to be encased in armor. . .

History
Food historians puzzle over the origins of the artichoke whose history seems to be entangled with the cardoon, another thistle-like Mediterranean plant relished for its edible leaves and stalks. Cardoon, C. cardunculus, is possibly a close relative of the artichoke. The distinction becomes even fuzzier when some botanists insist that the cardoon and the artichoke are in the same family while others strongly disagree. Early references seem to confuse the two plants, making it a which came first, the chicken or the egg.

Some historical books indicate that the artichoke was developed from a wild form of the cardoon, while Geoffrey Grigson's A Dictionary of English Plant Names states that the cardoon "may have been derived in cultivation" from the artichoke.

Historians are in agreement on one thing: the artichoke originated in a Mediterranean country, possibly Sicily or nearby Tunisia, known as Carthage in ancient times. Some references say it was not known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, while others say it was. Artichoke

During the Middle Ages there was hardly a mention of artichokes in historical references, though it was known they were definitely enjoyed at Sicilian tables. This same period saw Saracens growing them in Granada while the Moors were cultivating them in North Africa.

Naming the Artichoke
The origin of the word "artichoke" was most likely the Arabic word al-qarshuf. The Spanish called it alcachofa that sounds like the Arabic word. The Moorish invasion of Spain may account for this similarity. The Italian carciofo appears to be influenced by the Spanish. Their baby artichokes are called carciofini. The French word for artichoke is artichaut.

From Sicily, artichokes found their way to Naples, then traveled to Florence about 1466. By the time Catherine de Medici was born in 1519, her beloved Tuscany had been growing these treasures for nearly fifty years. It was possibly Catherine who introduced the artichoke to France when she became the 14-year-old bride of Henry II, King of France. Along with her personal servants came an entourage of Italian cooks with their traditional foods and cooking techniques they introduced into the French royal kitchens.

Catherine defied the popular convention dictating that women were not to eat vegetables thought to possess aphrodisiac qualities. That practice was reserved for men only. But Catherine loved artichokes, ate them openly, and in large quantities. One historian who observed her practice is quoted as saying that she "liked to burst."

A female writer of that period, referring to Catherine de Medici, wrote, "If one of us had eaten artichokes, we would have been pointed out on the street. Today young women are more forward than pages at the court."

From the 16th century to the end of the 20th century, the French were growing artichokes in Paris and even raised them to gourmet status. Like many uncommon vegetables of that time, artichokes were so costly only the wealthy aristocracy could afford them. When farmers in Italy, Greece and Spain began to grow artichokes in large quantities, the vegetable lost status in France and cultivation began to diminish.

In the 1690's two entrepreneurs created a different role for the artichoke. A Mennonite bishop and a printer teamed up to open a paper mill in Germantown, Pennsylvania where they experimented by digressing from the standard ingredients of used garments and linen rags to make paper. Instead, they employed the strong fibers of the artichoke along with thistles, nettles, moss, asparagus, peat, rush, and sea weed. Their results, unfortunately, were a dismal failure.

Wolfgang Goethe, eighteenth and nineteenth century poet and dramatist, shunned the artichoke. In his book Travels Through Italy he says, "the peasants eat thistles," a practice he could never adopt.

During the nineteenth century, the Spanish introduced the artichoke to California while the French brought them to Louisiana. The unique vegetable was considered quite the delicacy among the French. Even today, restaurants in New Orleans, where so many people of French origin settled, regularly feature artichokes on their menus. Artichoke

In contrast to the French, the British all but ignored the artichoke. This is not surprising. The English were reluctant to accept practically all new vegetables that passed their way.

Today most artichokes grown worldwide are cultivated in France, Italy, and Spain, while California provides nearly 100 percent of the United States crop.

California was reintroduced to the artichoke in the early 1900's when a number of Italian immigrants settled in the northern coastal city of Half Moon Bay. After harvesting their several hundred acres of artichokes, they sent their first shipment to the East Coast in 1906.

Interest in this vegetable continued to mount in Northern California. By the 1950's artichokes became so popular in the state, they earned the status of official vegetable of Monterey County.

Castroville, California, with its population of 5,000, named itself "the Artichoke Center of the World" for its ideal climate of moist air, even temperatures, and plenty of summertime foggy days along the coast. With its two packing houses and the country's only artichoke processing plant, Castroville became the United States artichoke growing center. Every year the town celebrates the harvest during the month of May with a festival that brings many visitors for a taste of innovative artichoke creations.

Artichokes in Other Cultures
Italians love to stuff artichokes with a seasoned breading mixture. Another typical Italian approach is to fry the sliced hearts in olive oil.

Some counties discard the artichoke stems while others eat them with gusto. This is understandable. Sometimes the stems are fully edible, tender, and flavorful, but with old or overripe artichokes they can be tough, fibrous, and even bitter.

The Italians grow a number of varieties of artichokes. They particularly enjoy the very small ones that cook to such tenderness they can be eaten in entirety. Four of their main varieties include Catanese, Romanesco, Spinoso Sardo, and Violetto di Toscana. Some of these appealing cultivars have tints of pink and purple on their outer leaves. A few of the purple varieties can be eaten raw if they are very young. They are seldom exported, but travelers remark about their exquisite flavors.

The rich cooking style of the New Orleans French Quarter turns the artichoke into a receptacle for stuffing with seafood and seasoned bread crumbs laced with onions, garlic, Romano cheese, and fresh lemon peel. Another French innovation involves serving artichoke leaves surrounding a bowl filled with an oyster dip.

Folklore and Strange Phenomena
European royalty enjoyed artichokes with enthusiasm because they were believed to possess aphrodisiac properties. Henry VIII was especially fond of them and consumed generous quantities. Faith in this vegetable's aphrodisiac qualities seemed to evolve around the Middle Ages.

Because cynarin, a phytochemical found in artichokes, has such a potent effect on the taste buds, people who enjoy wine with their meal find it unpalatable when eaten with artichokes. They suggest ice water instead. Two taste tests, one in 1934, the other in 1972, confirmed this phenomenon, noting that the majority of the people in the test found that after eating an artichoke, a sweet taste lingered for a short period. Those sweet tasters discovered that anything eaten immediately after tasted sweet.

This finding dismayed one winemaker in particular, an Italian who produced Cynar, an aperitif made from artichokes, thinking it would make foods tastier. Ah, well. It was a sweet thought.

Growing
The artichoke is actually a flower head or bud that has not completely matured. When fully matured and opened, the inedible bloom, a brilliant bluish-purple thistle, can be as large as four or five inches in diameter, some even as large as seven inches across. The plant itself, an herbaceous perennial, can grow to a height of ten to twelve feet, though the commercial plants range from four to six feet. The bushy plants spread to a six-foot diameter.

Each plant produces small, medium, and large artichokes with the largest artichokes formed at the top of the terminal buds along the central stem. The smaller artichokes develop on lower branches.

What we call the leaves that resemble petals are actually bracts. The edible portion is at the base of the bract where it attaches to the heart or stem. Artichokes come in all sizes from 2 3/4 to 5 inches (7 to 12.5 cm) in height and can weigh from 5 ounces to 2 1/4 pounds (141.8g to 1.1 kg).

Artichoke The globe artichoke, the most abundant producing artichoke, Cynara scolymus, belongs to the thistle group of the sunflower family/ Compositae (Asteraceae) family.

Artichokes can be grown from seed or from crown shoots. However, California commercial growers prefer the crown shoots from the Green Globe variety for their higher yields of marketable artichokes. These shoots are obtained from root sections attached to the basal stems, often referred to as stumps.

The desert regions of California and Arizona are now experimenting with a hybrid globe variety. Even the East Coast is interested in artichoke cultivation with Connecticut and Virginia working toward developing varieties that will grow successfully in those climates. During the l990's several new varieties, Emerald, Imperial Star, Grand Buerre, Purple Sicilian and Talpiot have been grown in California's inland valleys, where the climate is hotter and drier. Growers of the new varieties in varying climates have seen mixed results.

Temperatures below 25 F(-4 C) during winter can be damaging and require heavy mulching. In very cold climates the outer skin of the artichoke, or bud as it is called by growers, blisters and turns whitish, making it unattractive and hard to sell, though it does not affect the eating quality.

The plants thrive in very deep, well-fertilized, and well-drained soils that provide plenty of room for root development. Artichokes can be grown as annuals in areas that experience freezing temperatures. Purchasing seedlings from a local nursery during the spring season would certainly be an easier choice for home gardeners.

Plants produce for five to ten years with new growth of shoots stimulated by completely cutting back the plant several inches below the surface. This is done after every harvest.

Because the artichokes do not mature all at the same time, each plant must be harvested every seven days throughout the growing season. Harvesting is labor intensive and is done completely by hand with pickers who cut and toss each bud into a large basket carried on their backs. A full basket can weigh up to 80 pounds (36.3 kg).

About three-fourth of the artichokes harvested are sold fresh, with one fourth going to canning processors or frozen packers where they become artichoke hearts, bottoms, quarters, and even marinated varieties.

When harvesting artichokes, cut the stem 1 to 1 1/2 inches (2.5 to 3.8 cm) below the base of the bud. The remainder of that stem should be cut to allow new artichoke buds to develop. Refrigerate the artichokes soon after cutting them from the plant.

Commercial growers will cool their artichokes at 32 F to 33 F (0 C) within hours after harvest by packing them in waxed cartons with adequate ventilation holes that allow the release of heat and gas. With this method they can keep artichokes in storage for two to three weeks.

Health Benefits
In past centuries the artichoke was used as a diuretic. It was even thought to have deodorizing properties and was considered an ideal breath freshener.

In Turkey artichoke decoctions are used as blood cleansers and for detoxing the liver which in turn cleanses the skin. That country also considers the artichoke to be the ideal remedy for hepatitis. Artichoke

Today, vegetables are recognized as mini packages of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. The artichoke is being examined in research labs to explore its phytochemical contents. Two of these compounds, cynarin and silymarin, possess powerful antioxidant properties that may be beneficial in helping the liver to regenerate tissue growth.

That our ancestors considered the artichoke an appetite stimulant is no surprise. Research has found that the phytochemical cynarin truly does stimulate the taste buds. It's also responsible for bringing sweet flavors to any foods you eat immediately after eating the artichoke.

Nutrition
Fiber is a prime feature of this vegetable with one medium artichoke supplying a hearty 6 grams. Dieters can also enjoy the artichoke for its low count of only 60 calories.

This delectable vegetable is a heavyweight on the protein chart offering 4 grams.

The artichoke is truly a no-fat, no cholesterol treat that offers a host of vitamins and minerals including magnesium, chromium, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, iron, and calcium.

The vitamin A content soars to 212 IU. For the B vitamin, niacin, it supplies 1.20 mg while vitamin B6 offers .13 mg. All-important folic acid adds up 61.2 mcg and vitamin C provides 12 mg.

Artichokes are a good source of calcium measuring 54 mg while iron supplies 1.5 mg. Magnesium climbs to 72 mg while potassium scores an impressive 425 mg. Even zinc makes an appearance with .6 mg. for that medium size.

Because artichokes are so well endowed with nutrients and phytochemicals, many health researchers believe eating them may contribute to the prevention of certain types of heart disease, cancer, and birth defects.

The Nitty-Gritty of Eating an Artichoke
Artichoke lovers will always deny that eating a large artichoke is a test of patience. One must never be in a hurry when presented with such a delicacy. It's assuredly a hands-on experience--ideal for those who love to dive in and get personal with their food. If you want to create a relaxed atmosphere with a group of dinner guests who've never met, just serve them artichokes and a variety of sauces for dipping. A guaranteed ice-breaker is to serve one artichoke shared between two people.

When fully cooked, the individual leaves of the artichoke are pulled off from their fleshy base and eaten one at a time. This practice led to an Italian expression, "la politica del carciof," referring to the policy of dealing with opponents one at a time.

Each leaf is dipped into a sauce and eaten by biting down and pulling the leaf, curved side down, through the clenched front teeth to scrape off the edible 20% portion of the vegetable. The leaf is then discarded. The sauce one chooses for dipping can vary from plain to flavored mayonnaise to pungent salad dressings and vinaigrettes.

Wait, there's more! The best is yet to come! When nearly all the leaves are eaten, there is a small cone of thin leaves that surround the "choke." Simply pull these off altogether to expose the choke. Now you must remove the choke, that fibrous, inedible, spiked or bristled portion attached to the heart that one can easily recognize as the immature thistle. The choke can be easily pulled off in bits and pieces by hand, scooped out with a spoon, or trimmed off with a knife.

The portion that's left is considered the piece de resistance, the favored heart of the artichoke, a succulent, meaty segment that can be cut into pieces and used in other recipes or simply enjoyed as is dipped into your favorite sauce.

Now, don't forget about the fleshy stem. Unless the artichoke is old or overripe, the stem is nearly as delicious as the heart.

One last suggestion: Be sure to provide a bowl for the discarded leaves. Most people don't like to see a messy bunch of leaves and fuzzy chokes piled up helter skelter on their plates.

Purchasing and Storing
California artichokes are available throughout the year. The peak season, however, is from March through May with another harvest in October.

Select artichokes that are heavy and compact for their size, an indication that they will be moist and fleshy. Choose those of bright olive green color or with a minimum of darkening on the outer leaves. Look for artichokes that have closed or nearly closed leaves that are thick and sturdy. Those with leaves that are wide open are considered overripe and may be tough and less flavorful.

Avoid those with large areas of black or dark brown color on the tips of the leaves and especially avoid those with black areas at the base of the leaves. The black areas indicate the artichokes have begun to rot. Don't choose those that are light in weight and look shriveled. These are indications they are old and may have begun to dry.

Refrigerate artichokes in a perforated plastic bag soon after purchase. They will keep for 4 or 5 days. Cooked artichokes are quite perishable. After cooking, store leftovers in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for no more than 2 to 3 days.

Cooked and marinated artichokes can also be purchased by the pound or in jars in Italian markets and in supermarkets. Also available are those that are cooked, quartered, and water-packed in cans.

Frozen artichoke hearts, available is supermarkets, have no added ingredients. Simply heat them a minute or two in boiling water.

Preparation
If this is your first encounter with an artichoke, let us reassure you it's not as intimidating as it may look. It's quite easy and once you've mastered the technique, you'll agree.

The artichoke consists of four main parts--+the leaves, the choke, the heart (or bottom), and the stem. Begin by thoroughly washing the vegetable, then turning it upside-down to drain off all the water.

Next, pull off and discard a few of the small outer leaves at the base. These will be tough, even after cooking so you won't miss them. Then lay the artichoke on its side, and using a sharp, serrated, non-carbon steel knife and a sawing motion, cut off and discard the top third of the leaves. A carbon steel knife will react with the artichoke and turn it black.

With a kitchen scissors, snip off the top half-inch of the remaining leaves to remove the sharp prickly thorns.

Use a small paring knife to peel the outer layer of the stem and the tough edges at the base of the leaves you removed.

Now you're ready to cook the artichoke.

Cooking
Artichokes can be steamed, boiled, baked, fried, and stuffed. Cooked, they are delicious served hot or cold. They can be served as an appetizer, a side dish, a featured ingredient in soup, or even as a main course.

Steaming
Artichoke Avoid cooking artichokes in aluminum or cast iron pans or your artichokes will turn an ugly, dark grayish green. Cook the artichokes upside-down in a covered saucepan with 1/2 to 1 inch ( 1 to 2.5 cm) of water depending on what size and how many artichokes you are cooking. Include a couple of generous pinches of salt, and add a lemon wedge to the pot to help the artichokes retain their attractive green color. Most cookbooks suggest cooking the artichoke standing upright. In addition, they also suggest cutting off and discarding the stem. We prefer to savor the stem and keep it attached.

Turn the heat to high to bring the water to a boil. Then turn the heat down to medium, and steam for 25 to 45 minutes depending on the size of the artichoke. To test for doneness, lift the cover and pierce the heart with a fork. There should be no resistance.

After steaming, large artichokes can also be stuffed by spooning seasoned stuffing of choice between the leaves and baking just long enough to firm the stuffing, about 30 to 45 minutes at 325 F (Gas Mark 3).

Baby artichokes are far easier to deal with. When completely cooked, they are so tender, the entire vegetable can be eaten, choke, leaves, and all. Baby artichokes can be steamed or deep-fried. When cooked they can be marinated. Steaming time is 12 to 15 minutes.

Salads
When you haven't the time to cook artichokes from scratch, the water-packed canned ones are a delicious addition to any salad. You can add them whole or cut them into halves or quarters.

The marinated variety offers great flavor simply served as a party appetizer along with a dip.

Canned, water-packed, cooked artichoke bottoms (or hearts) also make an ideal base for a party appetizer. Simply fill them with tabbouli, hummus, mock tuna salad (made from soy protein), guacamole, a finely minced marinated mushroom salad, or soy cream cheese sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.

Braising
Prepare the artichokes for cooking, and put them into a saucepan with onions, garlic, a bay leaf, dried herbs, salt and pepper. Add 2 T. olive oil and cover with water. Simmer one to two hours depending on size. Test for doneness by piercing the heart with a fork. There should be no resistance.

Another suggestion is to remove the leaves and choke of two or three artichoke. Slice the hearts or cut them into chunks. Combine them in a large saucepan or Dutch oven with tomato wedges, zucchini chunks, sliced onions, sweet potato chunks, garlic, herbs, and water. Cover, and cook about 25 to 30 minutes until all vegetables are tender. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Cold
Cooked whole artichokes make an excellent presentation as a cold dish served with a pungent vinaigrette. As an alternative, the hearts can be part of a separate recipe, while the separated leaves make an ideal buffet platter as they surround a thick dipping sauce.

Add cooked artichoke hearts to bean salad, potato salad, grain salads, and even pasta salads. Crisp tossed green salads taste even better with artichoke hearts.

Stuffing
To prepare the artichoke for stuffing, cut off the stem at the base and follow the directions for steaming. After it is fully cooked, use your fingers to spread open the outer leaves. Pull out the inner core of leaves that cover the choke. This will reveal the choke so it can be scooped out with a spoon. Now the artichoke is ready for stuffing.


STUFFED ARTICHOKES

You couldn't ask for a more visually-appealing dish than these stuffed artichokes, which resemble king-size flowers in full bloom. For the perfect presentation, place a serving of cooked grain on the side of each dinner plate and sprinkle with finely minced dill, parsley, or green onion tops. The artichoke will fill the rest of the plate, starring as the main attraction.

Stuffed Artichokes is one of the delicious recipes from Zel Allen's cookbook The Nut Gourmet: Nourishing Nuts for Every Occasion published by Book Publishing Company in 2006.

Yield: 3 to 6 servings

3 large (not giant) fresh artichokes

1 onion, chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground pepper

1 pound (450g) firm tofu, rinsed and drained
2 slices whole grain bread, diced
1/2 cup pine nuts
1 to 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 teaspoons soy sauce

To Prepare the Artichokes

  1. To prepare the artichokes, remove a layer or two of the smaller leaves surrounding the base. Lay each artichoke on its side, and cut about 1-inch (2.5 cm) off the top with a sharp, heavy-duty knife and discard.
  2. Cut off the stem where it joins the bottom of the artichoke so the artichoke will stand upright. Reserve the stems.
  3. With a kitchen scissors, snip off the sharp tips of the remaining leaves of each artichoke, and use a small paring knife to trim off the outer skin from the stems.

To Cook the Artichokes

  1. To cook the artichokes, stand each one upside-down, with the stem end up, in an 8 to 10 quart (8- to 10 -liter) Dutch oven or stockpot. Add 1-inch (2.5 cm) of water, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat.
  2. Turn the heat down to medium and steam for 25 to 45 minutes, until just tender (the cooking time will depend on the size of the artichokes).
  3. Test for doneness by piercing the bottom or the heart with a fork. The artichokes should be firm, but the fork should enter without resistance. Remove them to a plate to cool.

To Prepare the Stuffing

  1. To make the stuffing, preheat the oven to 325 degrees (Gas Mark 3) and have ready a 9 x 13-inch (23 x 32.5 cm) baking dish. While the artichokes are cooking, put the onion, bell peppers, olive oil and garlic in a large non-stick skillet. Cook and stir for 7 to 8 minutes over high heat. Add the salt and pepper.
  2. Squeeze the tofu through your fingers into a large mixing bowl. Add the cooked onion and peppers, diced bread, pine nuts, nutritrional yeast, lemon juice, and soy sauce, and mix until all the ingredients are well distributed.

To Stuff the Artichoke

  1. To prepare each artichoke for stuffing, gently spread the leaves, taking care not to break them off. Reach into the center and remove the cone of lighter colored leaves by lifting them out. With a spoon, scoop out the hairy inedible choke and discard it.
  2. To stuff each artichoke, use a teaspoon to fill the center with the stuffing. Then stuff between the leaves, starting with the outer leaves and working inward.
  3. Put the stuffed artichokes into the baking dish. Bake uncovered for 10 to 12 minutes, just to warm through. Serve whole for 3 large servings, or cut in half to make 6 generous portions.

Serving Suggestion: Serve with a tossed green salad full of crunchy vegetables and a grain such as brown rice, quinoa, bulghur wheat, or barley.

You may want to serve some sauce on the side for dipping the heart of the artichoke. Some suggestions include the Tahini Falafel Sauce or Lemon Dill Silken Sauce. For the recipes see our Recipe Index under Dips and Spreads and/or Sauces.

For other artichoke recipes see Recipe index.


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