23 February 2009

Cleaning up.

It's my least favourite part about having friends come over: the aftermath. I usually end up cooking a fair bit of food, and realised that I could make my life easier by skipping the middle-man. This will not work for everyone, and this will certainly not work for a full on formal meal, but it did work for having a few friends over, and eating a casual, potluck style dinner. 

What I usually end up doing when people are coming over is that I'll do the long cooking things in the morning, when I wake up, then start the rest of the dinner about an hour and a half before everyone shows up. Since produce doesn't take too terribly long to prepare, it's usually just a question of getting it all together, and making it happen, then seasoning everything in the last 15 minutes or so, including the slow cooking things, like beans. What do I mean?

Say for example that I'm making a split pea soup. I'll start cooking the split peas in a slow cooker early in the morning. I prefer for mine to be cooked till they fall apart, which is why I prefer to give it as long as it wants. Others may prefer less cooking, and can do it in an hour or so. Then, I go about my day, just clearing up the house, or relaxing. Let's say that everyone is set to arrive at 7 PM. Around 5:30 PM, I get up off my duff, and begin prepping the vegetables for cooking. I do my washing, chopping, and salad-y type stuff first. Then, I season up the beans, so they'll have time to simmer with the spices, until my guests arrive. Then, I do all the vegetable cooking itself, which will take me from around 6:20 - 7:00, give or take. Then everyone arrives, I bring out the food and the eating stuff (plates, spoons, forks, bla bla bla), and set out everything on the table. Everyone takes what they want, and eats until she or he is full.

For something sweet, if everyone has room, I'll usually slice up some fruit (pears, apples, whatever), and serve it up. Usually people are too full for anything more by this point, so I often never reach this point. 

Then, when everyone leaves, I put everything away into the boxes I have to get them in the fridge or freezer. Then, I have to do the cooking dishes. They're often too large to efficiently go in my dish washer, and by now, the food has set in, because the hot food has been cooling in that pot this whole time. Meanwhile, the dinner dishes are still sitting there. By then, I'll usually feel too tired to bother with anything, and just leave it for the next day. The next day, my counter is still a disaster area, and the dishes are staring at me ruefully.

Let's be honest. You still don't attack them. I generally heat some leftovers up in a plate or bowl, and watch TV for a bit, to recuperate from the previous night. Then, when I find that the entire sink is still full of dishes, and I have to wash my eating dish, I realise that it's time to get some work done. By now, it's probably well into the next afternoon (around 3 or 4 PM). I do all the dishes at once, and stuff the dishwasher with whatever I can get in there in terms of dinner plates, glasses, mugs, spoons, forks, knives, etc.

Around 7 PM or so, I'm about done, and now the counter top, the stove, and the kitchen floor need to be cleaned. By then, I'm pooped, so I go make Steve his dinner, and set a pot of rice on again. 

Around 10 PM that night, I'll be done with cleaning the counter, and that night's dinner dishes. Then comes sleep, and the next day, I'll usually finish off the floor and stove by around noon~ish.

All for a single dinner event.

There HAD to be a better way. This time, I used those oven safe pyrex dishes that can go directly in your fridge. I cooked everything I needed for Saturday's dinner on Friday. Then, I put the food away into the pyrex containers, and kept them in big enough portions for four people. Because I was immediately putting the food away, the cooking pots were very easy to clean, and that job was done in about thirty minutes or so. 

The next day, I just heated everything up in the oven, did some last-minute jobs. I had plenty of time to get the kitchen back in shape by the time my friends arrived. Everything was piping hot from the oven, and tasted great. If you have microwave safe plastic food storage containers, this would go even faster, because you'd just have to nuke everything for a couple of minutes to reheat it to the right temp to get on the table. Then, when dinner was done, everything was already in the storage containers, so I just put it back in the fridge, and dumped the dinner dishes in the dishwasher. It was so much less work. The next day, all I had to do was some final touches to the kitchen, and it was nice and clean again. :)

18 February 2009

Had to make it happen, and fast.

My microwave is a rather nice one, and lets me set certain foods (like potatoes) to cook, based on the weight in ounces. I'm fairly certain that your microwaves (the ones with the fancy buttons) have the same feature, so I'd encourage you to read the manual, and figure out if such a thing is feasible.

So I was home yesterday, doing some cleaning, and catching up with myself, and I noticed that it was suddenly 6:30, by the time I cleared out the dishwasher. In a blind panic, I opened up the fridge to see what was in there.

1 cup of cooked mung beans (already seasoned, of course).

This is not good. Steve can easily pack that away in one sitting, and still be rather hungry. And this is where those time-saving devices really show their mettle. The first thing I did was to set some brown rice to cook in the rice cooker. That barely takes a couple of minutes, because the measuring is made brainlessly simple via the little measuring cup that came with the rice cooker, and the little lines marked on the inside, that tell you how much liquid to fill to.

Then, I scrubbed off four medium sized potatoes, and weighed them on the kitchen scale. 1 lb and 5 ounces, or 21 ounces. I threw them in the microwave, and set the weight to 21 ounces, and hit the start button. Then, out came a beet. The peeling and dicing of said beet barely took another couple of minutes or so. I had refrigerated my beans in a microwave safe container, so all I had to do was add the beets into the same dish as the beans. I also tipped in about 3/4 cup of leftover coconut milk I had (from some other recipe), and washed out the tin with hot water twice.

In that went as well. Finally, once the potatoes were baked, I switched out the potatoes for the casserole dish, and set the timer to 4 more minutes for the beans and beets. While that was going, I chopped up the beets, and let them wait for the beet/beans mixture to cook through. I wanted the beets cooked, but not mushy.

The whole lot came out, and in went the potatoes. I just let them sit in the dish, and microwaved for another minute, so everything cooks together. All in all, the whole thing only took around ten minutes, and the rice was well on its way to getting completed. Just minutes before he walked in, the rice cooker beeped its completion message. I quickly set a pot on the stove, and tipped in the beans/beets/potato stuff, and cranked the heat onto high heat. The whole thing came up to a boil, which is when I added some finely chopped up green thai bird chiles to the dish, and let it boil for a minute or so.

Steve walked in, saw the red soup, and smelled the freshly cooked rice, and was about to get himself a snack (because he thought it was going to take longer to cook), when I said, "Soup is ready, and rice is ready. Dig in." He looked infinitely relieved, and dug in heartily. While he was eating, I sliced up some pears that were nice and ripe, and arranged them on my block of Himalayan salt. It's this large slab of rock salt, with a pink colour and white marbling throughout. It lends just the slightest hint of salt to any dish. If you don't have such a slab, just the scantest tiniest sprinkle on sea salt will do the trick. This way, when he was done eating the fiery hot food, he could tame the tongue with the fresh, juicy, ripe pears.

If you stop for a minute and think about it, we barely use a fraction of the gadgets that we own, with a tiny fraction of their functions. I'm not one to condone cooking in a microwave exclusively, but there are times when you're in a hurry, and want something quick. The newer microwaves also have loads of nifty time and food saving features. That preset cooking time based on weight thing is ideal.

When the potatoes came out, they were fork tender to perfection, without being overcooked. The only reason I knew of the feature was because I read the instruction manual for the model, where it explained how to make sure the food you put in there gets cooked right. This goes double for my rice cooker, which has the lines for all different kinds of rice (plain white, brown, sushi, sweet, and no-rinse) listed on the inside. It just takes seconds to measure out the rice that I want, and add water up to the line on the pot. And every time the rice comes out of the pot, it's cooked to perfection.

If for no other reason than to get a good working knowledge of your appliances, get out those manuals, and read them (or at least skim them), so that when you are in a hurry, things don't go horribly wrong.

15 February 2009

Concerto for Flute and Harp

These people managed to mimic the sounds of the flute and the harp by just using percussion instruments. I think they did a fantastic job. Definitely give it a listen if you've got a few minutes to spare.

EDIT: Here is the link for those catching this on other sites that don't show the embedded video. 

12 February 2009

But one thing is not clear to me: the coconut dressing.
You process dried coconut flakes? And then mix it with curry leaves and other spices. I tried it and it gives me more like a chunky paste. I must of done something wrong there...
Could you explain it to me again?
Oh no! This email came from one of my dear listeners, Marie, who had asked me the questions about sandwiches (which, although I felt like I was out of my depth, I did my best to answer in this podcast episode). I think I might have mentioned a coconut dressing for some salad or another. It's one of my father's favourite ways to have any dense salad (like the ones with cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, onions, peppers, cucumbers, cilantro, and lots and lots of shredded coconut). I suggested a South Indian Coconut Chatni (not to be confused with North Indian fruit chutney, which in my mind is a disgusting way to ruin a perfectly good meal—who wants sweet with savoury?) which is a common accompaniment to all sorts of dishes, and completely forgot to specify that I meant to say fresh coconut.

As I mentioned in an old blog entry, my family always had fresh coconut, that my father would break open, and ferret out of the shell. The thought of having dried coconut never even entered my mind! I guess it's like those people who are fortunate enough to have herb gardens outside their houses: the thought of buying dried herbs seems ridiculous, when the fresh is sitting there in all its glory, right outside the door.

For the record, whenever I say "coconut" in any way, shape or form, assume that I mean fresh. The one concession I'll make is for tinned coconut milk, but that's mainly a convenience thing, rather than an ability thing. If I had the energy to break open a coconut, then grind it in the blender, then squeeze out the milk, then figure out what to do with the left over coconut grounds, I'd be doing it all the time. But quite frankly, coconut is expensive, and I'm not about to spring $1.25 on all that effort when a tin of coconut milk is about $0.89 for me. Thanks, but no thanks.

You can also find fresh grated coconut in frozen form at most Spanish supermarkets, or at Asian supermarkets. The best part about these is that the black, tough skin has already been removed, thus saving you a step in deliciousness. Just separate out the frozen block of coconut into 2 inch squares (be it with a hammer and chisel, or a mallet, or whatever it takes), and freeze them separately. Then, when you want coconut, just thaw out exactly what you need, because thawed coconut goes bad quickly.

I apologised profusely to Marie, and I hope she'll forgive me, and try again with fresh grated coconut that's been frozen. I also apologise to anyone else who tried the recipe and ended up with a mass of WTF.

11 February 2009

Beans and rice become finger food ...

... to peoples outside of India. In India, of course, we eat with our fingers, rather than spoons and forks, and we relish the task of scooping up the perfect quantities of rice, lentils, and pickles in one mouthful, to be followed by a swift bite of fresh green chile (for heat), and a bit of lemony cold salad (usually, cucumber, tomato, and onion, in any combination or separately). Then, in goes a bit of dry cooked vegetable with a bit of rice. Then goes some stewed veg with the rice. And on and on it goes, until the meal is finished, and the plate is clean, and all of the rice is finished. We do not waste rice. It's too important a part of our lives.

In the US and Europe, however, eating rice with one's fingers seems a bit out of place, and is difficult to do on the go. Enter hand-held beans and rice. This isn't quite a recipe, because I haven't really seen it before, but I had some leftover brown rice, and cooked brown lentils in the fridge. If you don't have cooked lentils, feel free to use a tin of black beans. It'll work just fine. However, I do caution you that my lentils are very well spiced, so if you're going to make this, make a point of adding extra spices, like cumin or coriander powder (or both!), a bit of cilantro or parsley, some grated ginger, some minced garlic, or whatever else you like. Because my lentils already had those spices in it, I didn't bother with adding them.

3 cups cooked brown rice
1 1/2 cups cooked beans, drained
spices of your choice
2 cloves minced garlic
Chopped green chiles, or chile flakes (optional)
1 TB oil, or spray of oil. Use vegetable oil. Olive oil would taste weird, I think.
Salt, to taste

Preheat your oven to 375ºF. Spread the oil on a baking sheet, and set the sheet on your counter. In a large bowl, dump in the rice. With a potato masher or wooden spoon or your hands, mash up the rice. It helps to have a good solid potato masher, because it will make short work of that mound of brown rice.

Drain the beans of their liquid, to the best of your ability. This works best when the beans are drained, because otherwise, the final product won't stay together so well. Mash the beans and rice together. Add in the spices of your choice, salt, the chiles, and the garlic. Mix it well with a spoon, the masher, or your hands.

Split the mass into balls about the size of your palms, and splat them down on the baking sheet. Don't worry about neatness. It's not going to be too terribly firm when you get started, but that's sort of the point. Bake at 375ºF for about 15 minutes. Remove the baking tray from the oven, and flip the rice balls over with a spatula. Feel free to smash them down slightly, to make them thinner, if you'd like. This will give a more crispy texture to the outside. Continue baking for another 15 minutes. By now, you should hear the rice sizzling nicely. This is a good thing.

Finally, if you want to, set the baking sheet under the broiler for a couple of minutes to get the tops browned nicely. It took about 2 minutes under my broiler.

These are excellent on their own, or as a vehicle for your favourite salad to go on top. I used the recipe for Beet Salad of Doom that I came up with a few days ago. The good part is that I managed to clear out my leftovers. The bad part is that my husband loved it so much that I don't have any more cooked brown rice or beet salad. Boo.

This is also an excellent way to sneak in some grated vegetables of your choice. Carrots would be excellent, as would cabbage. I wouldn't do potatoes, because I'd be nervous that they wouldn't cook up completely, but feel free to experiment. If the rice balls are too firm when you are forming them, add a bit of the bean liquid, or a bit of water. You want them to form a shape, but only a loose shape in the beginning. The extra liquid makes the rice more tender as it bakes.

The best part about this is that you can have beans and rice as a snack, and eat it with your fingers with no problem at all. They'd also make really cute little nibbles for a party, wherein you don't use full on cutlery, and just have people milling about, having bites of every little thing.

10 February 2009

Luncheon on Saturday

My friend Emily came over on Saturday to have lunch with us at our apartment. The meal barely took around twenty minutes to put together, because I had already soaked and boiled chickpeas the day before. I find that if I make my own cooked chickpeas, the final cost analysis leaves me much more comfortable than when I spend on tinned chickpeas from the store. When I looked around for a sale, I finally found some chickpeas at the store for $1.25/lb at the Indian store in Queens. That will easily double in volume when soaked, and increase still a bit more when boiled.

For one pound of cooked chickpeas, I'd pay about $0.50/lb. However, the weight of those tinned beans does include water, meaning that I'm paying a premium price for water. I don't know about y'all, but paying that sort of money for water is unacceptable. The point is that while I do keep some tinned beans in the pantry for emergencies, I use them only for emergencies, and don't count on them when I am looking for something to eat. This doesn't mean that I get annoyed when having to use them: I did buy them for a reason, after all!

At any rate, we did the dry roasted garbanzos from the cookbook, and one of the versions of aubergine. Emily had brought over some of those long Japanese ones which were slender and seemingly seedless (say that five times fast!), and ever so tender. We just sliced them up thickly, and those cooked up in no time flat.

And of course, I had a pot of brown rice already made by the time my friend came over, so that we could get down to the business of eating, as soon as possible! Everything was lovely, but more than that, the company was quite a lot of fun. We've decided to make this a weekly thing. Just by sheer dumb luck, I'd happened to call my mother today, and tell her of all the fun we had together, when my mother tells me that my sister was having friends over on Monday night too. They also live in a tiny apartment, but it's in Arizona, not New York (boo).

She spent to the tune of two or three hours in prepping ingredients, cooking, and then cleaning up the aftermath of the mess in the kitchen before everyone arrived. Once we discussed how I did this, she figured it would be quite sensible to follow my format, of having the main dish there at the place where everyone convenes for the feast, but have each guest bring a vegetable, and do the prep and cooking together. If the person doesn't have a lot of money, this is perfectly ideal, because now, you have a chance to get a huge meal with an investment of only a couple of dollars for whatever it is you're buying. Even if you buy expensive, or fancy ingredients, you're only buying around a pound or two, and that's enough to share with everyone else. This is just for one meal, remember. Leftovers may happen, but you should count on just that one meal.

So although we did buy those aubergines earlier in the week in Queens, for about $0.79/lb, even at the regular price of $3/lb, someone could afford to buy it, as it's only $3. When you do the potluck style where everyone cooks at home, it becomes a burden, because it's not just that one ingredient they're buying, but rather, dipping into their own stores of weekly groceries to make this happen. How easy is it to pop into a grocery store on the way to your friend's house, and grab a couple heads of broccoli, or a pound of peppers, or a tin of cooked beans (a larger one, please) if you're in a hurry or uncooked lentils if you're not, or even some salad material (lettuce, tomato, scallions, cucumber, and a little but of nuts)? It doesn't take but a minute to run in and run out, and then head over.

Once everyone arrives, you have the major cooking (rice, dry beans that're now soaked and boiled, etc.) taken care of, and it's just a question of putting together the quicker cooking foods, like the fresh produce. If you're not looking towards potatoes, or other slow cooking heavy root veggies, you can have a very easy time of chopping and cooking together.

That being said, if you're in a small apartment, and have a tiny kitchen, like I do, feel free to branch out to the dining room table, coffee table, or any other spare space you can see, with cutting boards and knives, to help with the prep work. This way, only the person who's essential to be in the kitchen need be in there, and the rest can help, while chatting on with a glass of juice or wine or water or fizzy drink, and still having a good time anyway. If you have kids who want to help too, but you're nervous about handling knives, let them do jobs that they can do without hurting themselves. After giving their hands a good washing (it's important to encourage your kids to follow good hygiene), let them rip up the dark leafy greens or remove the greens from the stems, or squish the avocado to make guacamole (it's a good thing if it's not uniform, because good guacamole has a bit of texture), or take the string part off the string beans, or help out with collecting the vegetable scraps for the compost bin as they show up. Get everyone involved, and it's so much more fun that way!

I'd suggest that if you try the same thing in your house (where others come over to cook with you), maybe try the following tips, to make it fun for everyone:

1. Prepare any long cooking ingredients before your guests arrive. That is, soak and boil beans the day before, get your water boiling for pasta and/or cook the rice about an hour before, and clear off some work space in your counter top. I have a tiny New York kitchen, and it makes me quite crazy to have anything on it, because otherwise, I have no workspace.

2. If you're like me, and you have very little kitchen space, feel free to branch out and use any available surface to seat a cutting board and a knife. If you know that you don't have knives and cutting boards, ask people to bring their own as well, or run down to your dollar store, and grab a few cheap cutting boards. That way, people just need to bring their favourite knife.

3. Don't worry about a specific plan in cooking the food. This isn't about the food. It's about having your friends come together for a fun time of working together to make a meal happen. If someone has an idea that sounds interesting, let them try it out. You may all learn something new! I was once at a party where people had never tried simply broiled tomatoes. I showed them how to do it, and it was like everyone was discovering tomatoes for the first time ever! (Just slice tomatoes into thick slices, and lay under the broiler, with a teensy bit of oil, for about five to eight minutes, checking on them every couple of minutes. Cook until little black spots form on the cut surface of the tomato. When they're out of the oven, lay on a basil leaf, and sprinkle on lime juice. Excellent stuff.)

4. Don't be afraid to taste something quick cooked, to get an idea of what it tastes like. If someone brings something that nobody has a foggy clue what it is (except the name), you can't go wrong with slicing off a bit, frying it up in a bit of oil on your stove, till the thing looks cooked. Go with a thin slice, so that it cooks quickly. Taste it, and see what works.

5. If you have people who do not drink, make sure to have on hand some sparkling cider, or seltzer water that's been flavoured with a bit of ginger juice (grate up fresh ginger, squeeze out the juice) and a twist of lime. This is meant to be a festive occasion for everyone.

6. If you're doing this weekly, skip the expensive ingredients, and stick with cheap stuff that everyone can afford. In fact, avoid serving alcohol every week, as it's expensive. Serve wine or beer or other things only occasionally. If it really is only once in a great while that everyone gets together, go nuts (responsibly, please)!

7. If there's an awkward lull in the conversation, don't be afraid to reminisce about memories of how everyone met, or something along those lines. I find that it gets everyone talking again in short order, and things pick up. If you do prefer there to be background noise, stick with music that can be enjoyed as background noise. You don't want it to drown out conversations!

The point is, all you need is one other friend to do this with, and a commitment to each other to make it work. If you'd like to alternate houses, that works too! For my friends who come over, they get an afternoon of fun and food and cooking together. For me, I get a good kick in the backside to keep my apartment relatively clean, so that when people do come over, it's just a quick clearing off of the kitchen, or hanging up a coat in the closet, rather than an elaborate cleaning all over again.

It also prevents me from falling into cooking ruts. There are times when I'll default to food that I've been making since I was a little kid, because I've made it so many thousands of times by now, that I can practically do it in my sleep (this includes any kind of bean or vegetable soup, and pasta). If I don't keep an eye on myself, I will stop exploring, for ease of preparation, rather than keeping my search up for new and interesting ways to do things. Everyone ends up with something that they wouldn't have had without the group.

Try it out some time, and let me know how it goes. And if you have any hints to share, feel free to comment, and let others see them as well!

09 February 2009

Are we that funny?

I was doing a search on the iTunes store for podcasts to listen to, and I came across a few GLBT ones. It struck me, all of a sudden, that most of them were labelled "humour", rather than lifestyle. Why is this?

What is it about being gay that seems to draw us towards humour?

How can you tell good bread?

The sound. If you've watched Ratatouille, you'll know exactly what line I'm talking about. It's the one where Collette is schooling Linguine on the fundamentals of good cooking. If you haven't seen the film, let me explain. When looking for good bread, you don't go by the look, you go by the sound. Mind you, the bakery won't be too keen on you palming all the loaves, so I'm not saying that you do this in the store to all the loaves, but when you do come across a loaf from a bakery that people rave about, hold it up to your ear, and press on the crust with your hands.

It should crackle, and sound something like a cross between crumpling paper and the sizzle of a thick slice of bread on a nice hot skillet, when you fry it up for croutons. The bread should also sound hollow when thumped with your knuckles, and should spring back resiliently when you do give it a press. If the bread doesn't bounce back, you're dealing with bad bread.

Well, my friend Chuck picked up the Bread book, and has been loving it.

He tells us more on his blog.

The book is called Bread. With something that solid, you don't need more fancy titles. Like Chuck said:
I could tell that the generic stuff they offered was differing radically from what I was used to. They combine yeast & water with flour using a sponge, which I hadn't done before. It also asked for much longer rising times, longer cooking times, and higher temperatures, as well as other things, like sustaining steam in the oven to crisp the crust. Figuring that I might as well give it a shot, I went ahead, half afraid that I'd turn out a burnt loaf of bread right?

Negative, Roger Wilco. This bread is out of this world.
Couldn't have said it better myself. The point is that when you can see that you've been doing even the fundamentals incorrectly (all these years), you now know that there is a technique—a magic—to making the perfect bread. Get the book from your library, or snag it on the internet. Whatever you do, make bread happen.

08 February 2009

I don't want to know what's going in. I want what's coming out.

I've had this major annoyance for a while, that when I'm on the phone, I want to hear what you're saying to me. To be honest, I'd sooner not be /on/ the phone to begin with, but there's a total of one or two people who I have to talk to on the phone regularly, because we're so physically far apart (best friend and my mother are two of those). So aside from face-to-face interaction and emails, the only time that I'll be listening to what you're saying is when you're doing it on the Internets.

1. Don't eat while you're recording. It's disgusting to hear the smacking of your lips, and the movements of your mouth. It also breaks up your flow of what you're trying to say. I don't mind if you need to get some liquid in you to keep the mouth lubricated (because one does tend to dry out), but much more than that is quite revolting.

2. --

No, that's about it. Don't eat when you're recording audio.


07 February 2009

Beet salad of doom.

It's the first time I've eaten beets and enjoyed it.

3 lb beets
1 lb carrots
1/2 lb daikon or red radish
1/2 lb granny smith apples

Peel the beets with a peeler. Grate everything up, either in your food processor, or using a box grater.

Handful of raw soaked almonds
1 TB white miso (optional)
Glass of orange juice, reserved
1 TB lemon or lime juice
Handful of fresh green chiles, stems removed. Omit if you don't like heat.
Salt, to taste
1 TB Rice wine or apple cider vinegar
Knob of ginger

In a blender or food processor, combine the almonds, miso, lemon/lime juice, green chilis, ginger, and vinegar. Grind until the almonds and chiles are chopped up. Then, crank the blender or food processor on full speed, drizzling in the orange juice in a steady stream, until everything is the thickness you want for it to be. Remember that you want this to cling to the vegetables. Then, when it's like you want it, remove it from the blender, and add salt to taste.

Toss the vegetables together with the dressing, and let it marinate for at least 30 minutes. The beets will turn everything into a brilliant pink/red, and the flavours will meld together beautifully. You'll get a little sweetness from the orange juice, carrots, and the apples. You get some tartness from the apples and lemon juice. The ginger provides a lovely counterpoint to the hotness of the chiles and the sharpness of the daikon. It's a wonderful salad, even in the cold weather, because the flavours just marry so well together.

You could use peanut butter or any other nuts you have in place of almonds. All it'll do is change the flavour in interesting ways.

Other vegetables you can add (and grate):
Red onions
Green papaya

If you decide to add some tomato, do so just before serving, so that the tomatoes don't leech out too much water, and make the salad into a mess. Feel free to roll this up into rice wrappers, and make spring rolls. The juicy dressing makes it so that you don't need a dipping sauce. Why not use it to stuff some Romaine lettuce leaves, and eat it like a taco? This would also be a stellar and interesting sushi filling.

If you are allergic to nuts, feel free to use coconut instead. If you don't have a blender or food processor, just do an emulsion with a bit of peanut butter or almond butter or whatever instead. If you don't like orange juice, try pineapple, or mango juice. You just need a little counterpoint to the heaviness of the salad, and the slight sweetness does the job.

In any case, I'm trying to get at the most important thing: There is no excuse not to make this salad. Go make it. If it got me to eat some beets, it's a miracle.