A Nerd Travels: Southern California 2016

Hey all!  Things have been a little slower than usual around here lately, I know.  We have multiple grant submission deadlines as well as work-related and personal travel to thank for that.

I also haven’t shared one of these posts in a while.  It’s not that I haven’t been traveling (Phoenix last June, Chicago in March, etc.), I guess I’ve just forgotten to take pictures.

At any rate, I was in Palm Springs, CA last month for an annual conference.  The conference was held at the La Quinta Resort.  I shared many of these on my Instagram account, so some of you may have seen them already.IMG_0563

The resort itself is pretty cool.  It’s kind of sprawling, has a bunch of pools, and is surrounded on 3 sides by these amazing jagged looking mountains.  I don’t have many photos of the resort itself, mostly because I had been there 4 years ago and wasn’t super concerned with taking pictures this time around.

We went hiking at Mount San Jacinto State Park.  You take a tram two and a half miles up the mountain. Once at the top, you’re at a height of 8,516 feet.  IMG_0561IMG_0562

Even though it’s like 100 degrees (not an exaggeration) in Palm Springs, because of the elevation it’s cool and very comfortable at the top of the mountain.  Perfect for hiking and not wanting to melt/die because of the heat.

Next up was Joshua Tree National Park.  It’s absolutely breathtaking.  So, so different than anything we have on the East coast.IMG_0559

Among the sand and rocks (many of which you can scramble on top of for really nice views), there are cacti and short scrubby sorts of plants, but also these gnarled, weathered trees that I couldn’t get enough of.


In the picture below, you’ll see some Joshua Trees.  They are, not surprisingly, everywhere within the park.IMG_0565

I have a serious soft spot in my heart for national parks.  I like to say that if I weren’t involved in science, that I’d love to work for the National Park Service.  Maybe if academia doesn’t pan out?

Sweet Corn Risotto with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

The flavors of sweet corn, tangy roasted cherry tomatoes, and fresh basil make this risotto taste just like summer in a bowl.Sweet Corn Risotto with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes | A Nerd CooksThis risotto is summery AF.  There’s no way around it.

Sweet corn, perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes, and fresh basil play so, so well together.Sweet Corn Risotto with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes | A Nerd CooksThe sweet corn flavor factor is amplified in this risotto, because in addition to using corn kernels, I also used about a cup of pureed corn in place of some of the broth.  It takes up a little extra time, but is well worth it.

In search of even more risotto goodness?  This Avocado and Corn Risotto is also pretty dang summery.  You can’t go wrong with Beer, Cheddar, and Sausage Risotto, IMO.  And, really.  Pumpkin Risotto is appropriate at all times of the year, no matter what anyone else says.Sweet Corn Risotto with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes | A Nerd Cooks

This risotto was inspired by this recipe found on Celebrating Sweets.

You’ll need:

For the roasted tomatoes:

  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • salt and pepper

For the corn:

  • 4 ears of fresh sweet corn, shucked (sub ~3-4 cups of frozen corn, thawed, if needed)
  • 2-4 tbs vegetable or chicken broth

For the risotto:

  • 5 cups of vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1 tbs olive oil
  • 1 tbs butter
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
  • 1 cup Parmesan cheese
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • fresh basil, cut into ribbons

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.  Line a baking sheet with foil.  Combine the cherry tomatoes, olive oil, and salt and pepper on the prepared baking sheet.  Roast for 1 hour, checking after 30 and 45 minutes, to ensure that they aren’t burning.  Set aside to cool once done.

Cut the kernels off of the 4 corn cobs.  Blend ~1 cup of the kernels in a blender or food processor with 2-4 tbs of broth.  Use just enough broth to make a mostly smooth puree. Set the pureed corn and other kernels aside for a few minutes.

Heat the 5 cups of broth in a medium sauce pan over medium heat.  Bring it to a simmer and then turn it to low.

In a heavy-bottomed pan or dutch oven, heat the olive oil and butter until the butter melts.  Add the garlic and remaining corn kernels.  Saute until the garlic is very fragrant.

Add the Arborio rice and  stir so that every grain gets coated in the olive oil and butter.  Allow the rice to toast a bit, stirring occasionally.  Once it starts to smell nutty, add the pureed corn.  Stir occasionally until almost all of the puree has been absorbed by the rice.

Turn the heat off under the broth, and add a couple of ladles to the rice.  Stir occasionally until, again, almost all of the liquid is absorbed.  Repeat this process until the risotto is creamy and the rice is no longer al dente (take a bite of it!).  You may or may not use all of the broth.

Add the Parmesan cheese, stirring until it has been incorporated.  Taste and add salt and pepper, if desired.  Top with roasted cherry tomatoes and fresh basil.  Take a bite of summer.

Sweet Corn Risotto with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes | A Nerd Cooks

The Salty Dog Cocktail

Bright and fresh – this three ingredient cocktail is perfect for summer!The Salty Dog Cocktail | A Nerd Cooks

Grapefruit juice + vodka or gin = a Greyhound

Grapefruit juice + vodka or gin + a salted rim = a Salty Dog

Get it?

The Salty Dog Cocktail | A Nerd CooksThese cocktails are super refreshing, full of bright flavor, and so simple to put together.

I enjoyed one in the middle of the afternoon after taking pictures, but imagine it would be a lovely brunch cocktail, as well.

The Salty Dog Cocktail | A Nerd Cooks


You’ll need (makes 1 cocktail):

  • kosher salt
  • 1.5 oz. vodka or gin
  • fresh grapefruit juice
  • grapefruit wedges, for garnish

Rim a rocks or highball glass with kosher salt.  Fill with ice.  Add the vodka or gin and top with grapefruit juice.  Toss a wedge of fresh grapefruit in there if you’re fancy.

That’s it!  Imbibe!

Berry and Ricotta Toast

This toast is healthy, tasty, and couldn’t be simpler to throw together.Berry and Ricotta Toast | A Nerd CooksToast a little bread, smear on some ricotta, top with berries, and drizzle it all with some honey.  Done and done.Berry and Ricotta Toast | A Nerd CooksWe’ve done this routine before.  Check this out Strawberry Ricotta Toast for yourself.

This time, however, it’s a little bit patriotic.Berry and Ricotta Toast | A Nerd Cooks

You’ll need:

  • 2 slices of bread
  • ricotta cheese
  • 2-3 strawberries, sliced
  • small handful of blueberries
  • honey

Toast the bread and slather on some ricotta cheese. Top with berries and a drizzle of honey.

Cream Cheese Chocolate Chip Cookies

These are the softest chocolate chip cookies, thanks to the addition of cream cheese and cornstarch.Cream Cheese Chocolate Chip Cookies | A Nerd Cooks

Yes, there are many chocolate chip cookie recipes on my blog already.  But really, can you have too many?  Check out these Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies, Chocolate Chip Banana Bread Cookies, and Salted Caramel Pretzel Chocolate Chip Cookies for a few examples.

I had been craving chocolate chip cookies hard for the past week.  Not quite sure why, but the craving was there.  These super soft and chewy cookies definitely saved the day.

I actually doubled the recipe and brought them to work.  None remained at the end of the day.Cream Cheese Chocolate Chip Cookies | A Nerd Cooks

I found this recipe on The Baking Fairy.

You’ll need (makes ~24 cookies):

  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp cornstarch
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup chocolate chips, plus more for topping
  • sea salt, for sprinkling on top

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set them aside.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, baking soda, and salt.  Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and cream cheese together for a few minutes, or until they are smooth.

Add the sugars, egg, and vanilla extract and cream together for 4-5 minutes, or until the mixture is light and fluffy.

In a couple of batches, add the dry ingredients to the wet.  Mix until they just come together, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary. Fold in the chocolate chips.

Using a cookie scoop (or two spoons), drop the dough onto the prepared baking sheets.  Press the tops lightly with your hand, press in a few extra chocolate chips, and top with a sprinkling of sea salt.

Bake 8-10 minutes, or just until the tops appear to be dry.  They will continue to firm up as they cool.  Do not over bake!

Allow the cookies to cool for 5-7 minutes on the cookie sheet before removing them to a wire rack to finish cooling completely.

Cream Cheese Chocolate Chip Cookies | A Nerd Cooks

Cilantro Lime Rice – Chipotle Copycat

Cilantro Lime Rice – just like Chipotle!Cilantro Lime Rice | A Nerd CooksSo, obviously I have a deep and abiding love for Chipotle.

Only a monster wouldn’t.  Kidding.  Sort of.


As much as I would love to eat at Chipotle on the regular, it can get to be a little bit expensive.

I’ve started playing around and making my own burrito bowls at home, and this Cilantro Lime Rice always serves as the base.  It makes a good side dish, too!


A little while back, Buzzfeed posted a bunch of Chipotle copycat recipes.  This is a slight adaptation of one of those recipes.

You’ll need:

  • 2 1/4 cups basmati rice
  • 3 cups water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbs vegetable oil
  • juice of 2 limes
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • kosher salt, to taste

Combine the rice, water, and bay leaves.  Cook according to package directions.  I made mine in a rice cooker.

Once the rice is cooked, fluff it with a fork and add the vegetable oil, lime juice, cilantro, and salt.  Stir to combine.  Taste and add more salt if necessary.

Blackberry Champagne Float

Sweet, fizzy, and perfect for summer.  These bubbly floats are refreshing and endlessly customizable.Blackberry Champagne Floats | A Nerd CooksThese champagne cocktails are so simple to throw together, yet look beautiful and taste great.  Blackberry Champagne Floats | A Nerd Cooks

Sean and I had them last weekend.  I had a leftover bottle of bubbly in the fridge that somehow didn’t make its way into mimosas over my birthday weekend.

They’d be perfect at brunch, or even as a dessert cocktail.  Or you know, because it’s Friday.

Blackberry Champagne Floats | A Nerd Cooks

You’ll need (makes 2 cocktails):

  • 4 scoops blackberry sorbet (I used this variety)
  • champagne/sparkling wine/prosecco
  • fresh blackberries and mint leaves, optional (for garnish)

Drop 2 scoops into each glass.  Top with as much bubbly as you’d like.  Add some fresh blackberries and mint leaves if you’re fancy.

Feel free to mix it up, too.  Does raspberry sorbet sound like your jam?  Use that instead!  Top with whatever kind of bubbly you prefer.  Trust me, even the cheap, sweet stuff is great here.

Blackberry Champagne Floats | A Nerd Cooks