Chef AJ has done it again! An innovative instructor, ablaze with the desire to inspire, she motivated the students of her healthy cooking classes to challenge their deepest, most inventive skills to create an innovative, truly healthy fruit and nut ball. By holding a contest to inspire them, Chef AJ lit the spark that set the students on a whirlwind kitchen adventure to dazzle the judges.
The unique Ball-off Contest, held Sunday, June 7, 2009, proved to be an exciting, one-of-a-kind event that had all the contest participants, the onlookers, cheering section, and the judges on edge. There was to be only one winner who would receive a copy of my cookbook, The Nut Gourmet, in addition to private lessons with Chef AJ.
The distinguished judging panel
The judging panel of three included me, Zel Allen, my husband Reuben, who is co-publisher of Vegetarians in Paradise, an online vegetarian magazine, and Kimberly Horowitz. Chef AJ chose Kimberly as part of the panel of judges because Kimberly has the reputation of being a very fussy eater. Chef AJ says, “Kimberly hates everything! If she likes something at all, it must really be good.” We felt like celebrities with the power to change lives—well, almost.
Since there were six entries in the contest, there were six platters lined up at the judging table. Each platter, heaping with stunning fruit and nut-ball creations, had a number that corresponded to the participant. Only Chef AJ knew which balls belonged to which participant.
The balls were to be judged on three categories: appearance, creativity, and taste. Because each of the entries was amazing, flavorful, visually appealing, and downright delicious, each deserved special recognition. Choosing only one winner was tough—actually it was painfully agonizing and the judging panel deliberated with great seriousness to arrive at a true winner.
Let the tasting begin!
We tasted each of the balls, one at a time, and were captivated by each one. Yet we kept returning to platter #3, then platter #1, and again to platter #4, and #2. And on and on, savoring each of the distinctive entries. The creativity was commendable and refreshing.
Finally, we reached an exhilarating conclusion. The winner was Platter #2 that belonged to Nataly Carranza’s Almond Dream Balls. Quite often simple ingredients, assembled in just the ideal quantities, can become enchanting creations. That was what kept bringing our judging panel back to Platter #2. It was the combination of raw almonds, almond butter, and almond extract that earned the top award.
Below are the recipes for each of the delicious entries. Any one you choose to make will bring pleasure and taste delight to all who partake of these original taste treats made from all natural ingredients—nothing refined or processed here.
Almond Dream Balls
By Nataly Carranza, the top prize winner
Yield: 15 to 20 balls
1/2 cup raw almonds
1/4 cup raw walnuts
1/2 cup pitted dates
1/4 cup raw almond butter
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1. Place the almonds and walnuts into the food processor and process until coarsely chopped.
2. Add the dates, almond butter, and almond extract and process until the mixture holds together.
3. Place the shredded coconut into a small bowl. Remove 1 tablespoon of the date/nut mixture from the processor at a time and roll into 1-inch balls.
4. Roll the balls in the shredded coconut to coat completely.
By Linda Zimmerling
Yield: 15 to 18 balls
1 cup raw pecans
1 handful dates soaked in water
5 unsoaked dates
1/4 cup raw sunflower seeds
1/4 cup dried cherries
1 tablespoon Vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon caramel extract
1. Combine all the ingredients in the food processor and process until they are well moistened and thoroughly combined to desired consistency.
2. Form the mixture into 1-inch balls by rolling between the palms of the hands.
Mint Chocolate Chip Balls
By YiFan Rao
Yield: Twenty 3/4-inch balls
10 to 15 dates to taste
1/2 cup hemp seeds
2 tablespoons cacao powder
1 small bunch fresh mint leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup of almonds
1 cup of cashews (or any combination of nuts)
Cacao nibs for coating the balls
1. Place the dates, hemp seeds, cacao powder, mint leaves, and vanilla extract into the food processor and process to a mushy consistency. Remove the date mixture and set side.
2. Place the nuts into the processor and process to a flour consistency. Add the date mixture and process until well combined.
3. Form the fruit-nut mixture into small balls about 1-inch in diameter. Place the cacao nibs into a small bowl and roll the balls into the nibs to coat them.
By Paula Shields
Yield: about 18 balls
2 cups raw pecans
1 cup raw almonds
12 to 15 dates, soaked overnight in just enough water to cover
1 handful black and golden raisins combined
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon sunflower seeds
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, or more to taste
3 to 4 ounces coconut powder
1. Combine the almonds, dates, raisins, vanilla extract, sunflower seeds, and cinnamon in the food processor and process, adding the date water as needed to wet and bind the mixture.
2. Place the coconut powder into a small bowl. Form the date-nut mixture into 1-inch balls and roll them in the coconut powder to coat them completely.
By Blanca Carranza
Yield: 15 to 20 balls
1/2 pitted dates
1/4 cacao powder
1/4 orange juice
1/4 raw chopped walnuts
1. Boil the plantains until soft. Cut them in half and remove the fibrous strings from the center
2. Place the plantains into the food processor along with the dates, cacao powder, and orange juice and process until smooth.
3. Remove about 1 tablespoon of the mixture at a time and roll into 1-inch balls.
4. Combine the cacao nibs and chopped walnuts in a small bowl and roll the balls in cacao nibs and chopped walnuts in the mixture to coat completely.