The Pomegranate Cafe

Today, I’m sharing with you my review of a vegetarian/vegan restaurant called The Pomegranate Café here in Ahwatukee, Arizona.  In a part of the country known primarily for its authentic Mexican cuisine (which I also love), it isn’t always easy to find healthy eats that cater to our plant-based lifestyle.  When I have the chance to try something new here in the valley, I really relish the opportunity to eat high-quality food that will ultimately inspire me in my own kitchen.

TPC, a mother/daughter created concept, is located in a bustling strip center in the east valley of Phoenix.  It is a charming establishment—as I’m finding many vegetarian/vegan restaurants are—with reclaimed wood tables, mason jar lights, fresh flower centerpieces, and images of plants displayed on the walls.  I could hear Bad Religion playing in the kitchen and the young people on staff appeared to really embrace the way of life that comes with plant-based eating.

The menu at TPC is lengthy and diverse.  I really appreciate choices, especially when it comes to plants.  I was happy to see that they indicated when an item was raw (not cooked above 118 degrees) and even when an item’s proceeds went to charity.  While just about everything looked absolutely delicious, after watching a powerful documentary called An Apology to Elephants, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to play a small role in helping the elephants in need; I ordered the Elephant Bowl Curry.

The curry was a little spicy for me, but I’ve admitted before to being a total wimp.  🙂  This rendition had a variety of vegetables and sat atop one of my favorite super foods, quinoa.  It wasn’t much unlike my own curry formula.

FullSizeRenderTravis ordered a Macro Bowl, which I don’t see here on their online menu.  It was also fantastic and a harmonious pairing between raw and cooked elements, from tofu to black beans to kale to seaweed.  It came with a zesty lime macadamia pesto that reminded me of my pesto formula; I now have a new combo idea!

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In case you were wondering, Nolan had an almond butter sandwich on whole grain brain with fresh fruit and a vegan cookie.  Once we saw his cookie, Travis and I knew we needed dessert for ourselves.  All of the pastries at TPC are vegan, but don’t taste like it.  Rich, sweet, buttery, and filling, I needed to take the rest of my “cheesecake” home.  That’s a raspberry vanilla slice below, along with Travis’s selection, a play on an Almond Joy candy bar.  Both were, in a word, impressive.

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What was not so impressive, however, was the service.  While the staff was friendly and knowledgeable, they were inattentive to detail, bringing our dinners out at three different times (Nolan, me, then Travis) and messing up simple orders (green tea instead of mint, Almond Joy instead of Snickers).  Being that we were one of three tables occupied on the 4th of July, I wouldn’t have expected it too much of a challenge.  You win some, you lose some; I’d come back for the food any day.

TPC:  Take out rather than dine in, but definitely try it.  Double check the bag and enjoy eating green.

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Back-to-School Brownies

This summer, I’m teaching a one-month ENG102 course that meets four times a week for two hours a day.  At this point in my pregnancy, I need to eat at some point in the two hours, even if it is just a little nibble.  So, I thought I would start a snack sign-up for the students, bringing a snack for them on the first day so that they knew I meant business.  🙂

Brownies are a decadent, sweet, rich treat that seems to please even the pickiest of eaters.  Because these are Fresh Formula brownies, you can additionally expect my version to be healthier than the boxed variety or even those homemade with animal products.

The health benefits of what makes a brownie a brownie—cocoa powder—are numerous, and detailed in my chocolate peanut butter banana smoothie post.  Before we get to baking, I am going to cover two other featured ingredients:  pecans and coconut oil.

Pecans, besides being easy to chop and chew, are buttery and delicious.  Pecans are notably high in fiber and magnesium, which has anti-inflammatory benefits.  While pecans are high in fat, they boast healthy fatty acids, such as oleic acid (also found in olive oil), and contain no cholesterol.  Nut allergies?  Don’t worry – this formula does not require nuts to work.  I just really enjoy them for their protein content and yummy crunch!

DSC_2139Speaking of fat, coconut oil is loaded with it…but a lot of other amazingness, too.  Brownies rely on some fat to achieve their fudgy texture and glistening appearance, but you can make smart choices about what type of fat and how much you are going to use.  Coconut oil is everywhere in health news of late.  It can be used as sunscreen, hair conditioner and even toothpaste!  When it comes to ingesting it, it doesn’t contain many health benefits, per se, but can withstand a higher cooking temperature than many other oils, lessening your exposure to free radicals or carcinogens.  And of course, it doesn’t contain cholesterol.

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Whichever oil you choose, keep it mind that some will affect the flavor of the brownies; I found that coconut oil did not.

Finally, brownies are an excellent canvas for all kinds of chips.  Like my classic chip cookie formula, “chips” here can be a lot of things:  chocolate, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, etc.  My chips for today’s take on the formula are pecans.

As I’ve mentioned before, dessert is dessert and it won’t be the healthiest item you put into your mouth all day, vegan or not, but we can always strive to do better.  For me, they really are a special treat, popping out of my oven only two or three times a year.  Oh, and in case you were wondering, my students gobbled these up…even after they learned they were vegan.  Plant-based victory!

FORMULA BASE:  BROWNIES

Fills a 9 x 13 pan with approximately ¾-inch thick brownies

  • 2 cups flour –> I’m using all whole wheat except for the last 1/3 cup; I ran out and used brown rice flour to fill in the rest.
  • 1 cup plant milk –> I’m using unsweetened, unflavored almond.
  • 1 cup sweetener –> I’m using turbinado sugar.*
  • ¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ½ cup oil –>  I’m using coconut.
  • 1 tbsp ground flax or chia seeds + 3 tbsp hot water (“egg”) –> I’m using flax.
  • 1 tsp extract –> I’m using homemade vanilla.
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp pink Himalayan sea salt
  • OPTIONAL:  ½-1 cup chips

*What’s this?  See my cake formula.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  In a large bowl, mix your dry ingredients, sans sweetener.  In another bowl, mix your wet ingredients, plus sweetener.  This includes your “egg,” which should be prepared separately before adding it to the rest of the wet ingredients.

Slowly mix your wet ingredients into your dry until a dough forms.  That’s right, this mixture will likely be more dough-like than batter-like, although different sweeteners and oils may change the consistency slightly.  Point is, don’t be concerned if what you expected to be a drippy batter turns out thick.  🙂

DSC_2144Mix in your chips or save them to sprinkle on top.

Lightly grease a 9 x 13 backing pan or dish (I prefer glass).  Spread your dough evenly throughout and top with chips, if you’d like.  Lightly press any toppers into the dough with a spatula before heading into the oven.

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Bake for 20-22 minutes for a fudgy brownie or 23-25 minutes for a cakey brownie.  Enjoy!

I’m Pregnant, and I want PB&J!

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If you haven’t heard via one of my social media accounts (follow me on Twitter and Instagram @jackiewitzke or on Tumblr, TheFreshFormula), I am pregnant with baby #2! We have lovingly named our mini-us Baby Dos, since we aren’t finding out the sex until birth. I’m happy to report that I’ve been feeling well overall, especially now that the exhaustion of the first trimester has passed.

When I was pregnant with Nolan, I craved macaroni and cheese, which doesn’t exactly bode well for my plant-based lifestyle. This pregnancy, I’m thankful to be craving something animal-free: good ‘ole peanut butter and jelly! So long as jelly doesn’t contain gelatin, it is naturally vegan. I buy nut butters containing only nuts, so they’re as natural as you can get, too. And as you know, I also make my own bread, so PB&J is generally a pretty healthy snack for me…

…except for the excess of sugar found in some jelly brands. I’ve handled this a couple of ways. If I purchase premade jelly, I look for all-natural varieties that do not contain high fructose corn syrup. Travis and I have also made our own jellies and jams in the past, allowing us to control the amount and quality of sweetener that goes in.

Regardless of how well I shop or prepare homemade jellies and jams, sugar is sugar. Not only does the average person need to avoid consuming an excess, but certainly a pregnant woman should. I have solved this problem by turning to an old standby: my dessert smoothie formula.

Yes, it’s here: the no-sugar-added PB&J smoothie! I derive all of the sweetness in this treat from raw fruit and medjool dates (as needed). But wait, doesn’t fruit contain sugar? Yes – thankfully, it is coupled with fiber to slow the body’s absorption and prevent the conversion to fat. A dietician that I follow (as mentioned in this previous post) eats primarily raw fruit in her vegan diet and claims that you cannot consume too much of natural sugar in this form (juice, of course, is another story, which I wrote about in the same post). So, not to worry PB&J lovers!

My favorite jelly is that of raspberries, which I’m including in today’s formula adaptation. Raspberries (as with many other berries) happen to be low in sugar, for those concerned, and contain more fiber than any other fruit. Pretty awesome, huh?!  These pictured below are frozen, not moldy.  🙂

DSC_2033Like my chocolate peanut butter banana smoothie, you can enjoy this one for dessert, but it would make for a well-balanced breakfast or snack, too. Enjoy!

FORMULA BASE: DESSERT SMOOTHIE

Serves 2-3

  • 2 frozen bananas (or fresh bananas and ice)
  • ½-1 cup specialty ingredients –> I’m using ¾ cup frozen raspberries and ¼ cup peanut butter.*
  • 1 tbsp chia seeds
  • 1 tbsp ground flax seeds
  • 1 tbsp hulled hemp seeds
  • ¼-½ tsp extract of choice (optional, and amount depends on flavor intensity) –> I’m not using any.
  • Pitted medjool dates as needed for sweetness –> I’m not using any.
  • Juice or plant milk until desired consistency (start with 4 oz) –> I’m using almond.

*You could use any combination of berries and nut/seed butter.  🙂

Place all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth, adjusting specialty ingredients as necessary.

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Dessert for Breakfast? Yes, Please!

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Today, I made my favorite dessert smoothie for breakfast. Above, you can see the finished product, ready for consumption by one busy mommy and on-the-go toddler.  While you’ll love this sweet treat in a traditional post-meal capacity, it can serve as a decadent start to your day, too. Jam-packed with protein and calcium, it puts many other breakfast options to shame.

A few words about some of the ingredients (pictured below) in this chocolate peanut butter banana concoction…

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First, we have cocoa power. To keep the sugar content low, it is imperative that it be unsweetened. Cocoa powder, which contains powerful antioxidants, has numerous health benefits, so it may be tempting to add a lot, but its flavor is quite intense. Start with a tablespoon and slowly add more if you want your smoothie extra chocolaty.

Secondly, seek out a peanuts-only peanut butter. Many peanut butters contain added sugar, oil, and salt, which may result in you initially finding a simpler peanut butter bland. The purer taste, however, will grow on you over time; I now find myself off-put by peanut butter with unnecessary additives.

Lastly, because the cocoa power, peanut butter, and almond milk in this recipe are all unsweetened, you have only the bananas to rely on to give this smoothie a dessert-like quality. Riper bananas will be sweeter, but if even that is not enough for you, add medjool dates–which are rich in fiber and vitamins–for a little something extra. As you can see in the photo, they do contain pits, which can be easily removed by splitting the dates in half with your thumbs. Medjool dates are very soft, easy to work with, and blend well, if you have a high quality blender.

That leads me to my blender: the Ninja, which includes pitchers in two different sizes. The most basic model will run you about $100, where the more advanced models with more equipment will be over $300. While I would love someday to own one of the hailed Vitamix or Blendtec processors, for a little less coin, I’m happy with the Ninja for now. If you do not own a blender with advanced capabilities and fear that the less-than-perfect puree of the dates would result in an unappealing texture, you could substitute another sweetener of your choice.

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Overall, this smoothie blends up nicely, with the exception of the chia seeds, which I’m not sure would completely puree in any blender. Their texture reminds me of the tiny seeds on strawberries or in kiwis and does not bother me, but you can eliminate them if you so choose. I have chia seeds in many of my formulas/recipes, as they are a super food loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, fiber, and protein.

But the seeds and peanut butter are fattening, right? Yes, they are. I’m happy to report, however, that seeds and nuts contain cholesterol-free fats. If you’re following a fairly strict plant-based diet, seeds and nuts are among the only sources of fat that you will ingest. Think about that squishy, white-ish edge of a pork chop or the grease that floats on top of a cheesy pizza and you will celebrate the addition, in moderation, of a different kind of fat to your diet. Also, this smoothie need not be your everyday breakfast (I make it once or twice a week) – check out my fruit and veggie smoothie formula, too.

With that said, on to dessert!

FORMULA BASE:  DESSERT SMOOTHIE

  • 2 frozen bananas (or fresh bananas and ice)
  • ½-1 cup specialty ingredients –>  I’m using ½ cup peanut butter and 1 heaping tbsp of unsweetened cocoa powder.
  • 1 tbsp chia seeds
  • 1 tbsp ground flax seeds
  • ¼-½ tsp extract of choice (optional, and amount depends on flavor intensity) –>  I’m using no extract in this recipe.
  • Pitted medjool dates as needed for sweetness  –>  I’m using 2.
  • Juice or plant milk until desired consistency (start with 4 oz)  –>  I’m using unsweetened almond milk.

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Combine all ingredients in a blender. Taste and adjust specialty ingredients as necessary.  Enjoy!