A Nerd Travels: Florence, Italy

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So, you’ve seen some pictures from our time in Rome. Next, let’s head to Florence.

We took a high speed train from Rome to Florence. This is something that I really wish we had more of in the U.S. It cut what is usually a 3.5 hour drive down to only 1.5 hours.

Our first day in Florence, we did a lot of walking. Actually, we did a ton of walking each day we were there. I’m talking 20,000 steps a day without even trying.

We made our way to Ponte Vecchio, which literally means “old bridge.” It is, as the name might lead you to believe, an old bridge. It has shops (mostly pretty touristy stuff) along the bridge, which used to be common, but you don’t see it very often anymore. There we are, on the bridge. IMG_1370

The following picture is a view of Ponte Vecchio from atop another bridge further down the Arno River.

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Just like in Rome, there were lots of old, beautiful churches. This is Santa Maria Novella2017-03-11 17.04.29

And of course, we spent a lot of time in Piazza del Duomo. You can climb to the top of both the dome of the Duomo as well as Giotto’s Bell Tower, if you’re up for it. After some research and asking around, I found that the Bell Tower involves a slightly less claustrophobia-inducing climb. So we went that route.

You can see the dome of the Duomo in the picture below.

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This is the Bell Tower. 414 steps will take you to the top.2017-03-11 16.52.57

This is the front of the Cattedrale di Santa Maira del Fiore, along with the Bell Tower (on the right).2017-03-11 16.40.51

Waiting in line, looking up and anticipating the climb.2017-03-11 14.58.39

The climb up to the top of the Bell Tower is narrow, and can make you feel pretty claustrophobic. The stairwell gets more narrow the higher you climb, and gets to the point that it’s pretty difficult to have folks going up and down the steps at the same time. I took this picture on one of the small landings while waiting for people to go up the steps before we could continue on our way back down.2017-03-11 15.33.05

One of the great things about climbing the Bell Tower is that you are afforded gorgeous views of the Duomo and pretty much all of Florence.2017-03-11 15.25.05-12017-03-11 15.09.14

Aside from sightseeing, we ate so much fantastic food. In fact, I would say that the best meal during our entire time in Italy was eaten in Florence. If you ever go, please seek out Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori. It’s a small restaurant (make a reservation!) with a handwritten menu that changes daily. I had pasta with zucchini flowers and a saffron ricotta cream sauce. Amazing.

A Nerd Travels

Of course, even in Italy, Sean had to find an Irish pub and have a Guinness. This was right after we climbed the Bell Tower.

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Lemon White Chocolate Chip Pudding Cookies

These pudding cookies are super soft and packed with bright, zingy lemon flavor.

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Lemon White Chocolate Chip Pudding Cookies | A Nerd Cooks

It’s official: pudding cookies are my new go-to cookie. They addition of pudding mix ensures that they are super soft, bake up perfectly every time, and can be flavored however you like. Want a more traditional chocolate chip cookie? Use vanilla pudding + chocolate chips. Is pistachio your jam? Use pistachio-flavored pudding. You get the idea.

Lemon White Chocolate Chip Pudding Cookies | A Nerd Cooks

Beyond being delicious, lemon and white chocolate strike me as being a perfect flavor pairing for spring time. The sweet and tangy flavor combination is also a refreshing alternative to all-sweet cookies.

In the mood for more lemony treats? Check out these Pink Lemonade Cupcakes and Whole Lemon Bars!

Lemon White Chocolate Chip Pudding Cookies | A Nerd Cooks

These cookies are adapted from the recipe found on Crazy for Crust.

*Before we dive into the recipe, know that this dough will need to be chilled for at least 1 hour before baking.*

You’ll need (yields approximately 24 cookies):

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar on medium speed. Mix in the egg and lemon extract until smooth.

Add the pudding mix, baking soda, and salt. Mix until combined. Add the flour. Mix again until well combined. Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl as needed. Add the white chocolate chips and mix on medium-high speed until they are distributed throughout the cookie dough.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Scoop 2 tbs balls of dough onto the cookie sheet. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour.

When you’re ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line two additional baking sheets with parchment paper. Place the chilled balls of cookie dough on the prepared baking sheets, approximately 2 inches apart. Bake 9-11 minutes, or until the edges just start to turn brown.

Remove the cookies from the oven and press additional white chocolate chips into the warm cookies, if desired. Allow the cookies to cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes before removing them to a wire rack to finish cooling completely.

Lemon White Chocolate Chip Pudding Cookies | A Nerd Cooks

Lemon White Chocolate Chip Pudding Cookies | A Nerd Cooks

Spring Confetti Blondies

Celebrate the return of Spring with a colorful, sweet, and fun blondie!

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Spring Confetti Blondies | A Nerd Cooks

These chewy blondies are loaded with lots of good things: chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, sprinkles, and peanut butter-filled candy eggs. Admittedly, they’re a bit of a sugar bomb, but I think that they’re worth it.Spring Confetti Blondies | A Nerd Cooks

I made these these blondies in anticipation of the Easter holiday, but, not surprisingly, couldn’t get it together enough to post these last week. Since Easter has come and gone, you can feel free to substitute any candy you’d like in place of the egg-shaped Reese’s Pieces candy that I’ve used. Think M&Ms, regular Reese’s Pieces, and so on.

These sweet and chewy blondies serve as the perfect backdrop for whatever candy or mix-ins you choose to add.

Spring Confetti Blondies | A Nerd Cooks

The base of this blondie recipe comes from The Cookies & Cups Cookbook.

You’ll need:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 9×13-inch baking dish with aluminum foil. Spray the foil with cooking spray and set aside.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a medium-sized bowl. Set aside.

Cream the softened butter and brown sugar together in the bowl of a stand mixer until light and fluffy. Add the egg, egg yolk, and vanilla extract. Beat until combined. Add the flour mixture, a little at a time, until well combined. Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl as needed.

Add the mini chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, and sprinkles. Beat until all of the mix-ins are distributed throughout the dough.

Press the dough into the prepared baking dish in an even layer. Top with extra mini chocolate chips and sprinkles. Lightly press the Reese’s Pieces eggs into the dough, distributing them randomly over the surface.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick, when inserted into the center, comes out clean. Allow the blondies to cool completely before cutting them into bars.

Spring Confetti Blondies | A Nerd Cooks

Spring Confetti Blondies | A Nerd Cooks

Three Ingredient Slow Cooker Taco Chicken

This Taco Chicken is super easy and delicious. Just throw three ingredients into the slow cooker and walk away. Shred the chicken and enjoy it in a variety of ways!

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Three Ingredient Slow Cooker Taco Chicken | A Nerd Cooks

This is another one of those dishes that I’ve made countless times, but have never taken the time to photograph. Usually we just dig in to dinner, and by the time I remember to take a picture, the natural light isn’t very good anymore or the sun has set completely.

We make this taco chicken at least once a month. It’s versatile (use it in tacos, burritos, etc.), requires almost no effort to prepare, and makes a lot of food. As a result, we get to enjoy leftovers at least once during the week. For me, this just adds to this chicken’s appeal.

Three Ingredient Slow Cooker Taco Chicken | A Nerd Cooks

You’ll need (serves 4-6):

Place all ingredients in a 4 quart slow cooker. Cook on high for 4 hours or on low for 6 hours. Using two forks, shred the chicken.

Just like the Pressure Cooker Carnitas that I shared last week, this shredded chicken is pretty versatile. Eat it in tacos, quesadillas, burritos, or alongside/atop some Cilantro Lime Rice. Do you! Do what feels right.

If you’re looking for something a little spicier, but just as easy to throw together, take a look at this Slow Cooker Buffalo Chicken. Super easy to make, and can also be used in a number of ways.

Three Ingredient Slow Cooker Taco Chicken | A Nerd Cooks

Three Ingredient Slow Cooker Taco Chicken | A Nerd Cooks

A Nerd Travels: Rome, Italy

Yes! Sean and I went to Italy last month! If you follow me on Instagram or follow the blog’s page on Facebook, you have likely seen a few photos already.

One of the annual scientific conferences that I attend was in Florence this year. Sean came with (of course), and we we decided to make a proper vacation of it by tacking on a few extra days before and after the meting so we could do some sightseeing. Our itinerary went like this: Rome –> Florence (+ a day trip to Cinque Terre) –> Rome. I’ll be sharing photos from Florence and Cinque Terre soon, but let’s start with Rome.

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One of the first things that we did was go see the Colosseum. We’re all more or less familiar with the Colosseum, right? I think it’s probably the most easily recognizable of the ancient landmarks in Rome.

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When you get off of the Metro at the Colosseo stop, it’s right there. First thing you see when you walk up the steps and out of the metro station is the Colosseum. It’s just there, in the middle of modern day Rome.

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It’s incredibly impressive, both in size and also in terms of how old it is. It was built between 70 and 80 AD. You can see that the skies were pretty overcast and dreary looking; this was the worst of the weather that we experienced the entire time that we were there. We were really lucky.

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Speaking of the Roman Metro system, all of the train cars are tagged up like this. Really, a good bit of the city is covered in graffiti. I think that, in the U.S. at least, we tend to equate graffiti with a geographic area not being the nicest or safest. Broken windows theory, and all that. Not so in Rome. From what we saw, most buildings were tagged. And really, a lot of it was beautiful or at least interesting to look at.

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We briefly visited the Trevi Fountain, which was super crowded but also beautiful.

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We also visited quite a few old Catholic churches. They were, of course, very beautiful. The photo below was taken in The Basilica of Santa Sabina, which was completed in the year 432. I lit a candle and said a prayer there.IMG_1564

This wooden door was in the Church of San Saba (13th century). It was almost directly across the street from the Airbnb we stayed in during the 2nd portion of our stay in Rome.

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For me, there’s something seriously comforting about the fact that all Catholic churches smell the same. Even the really old ones, and ones that are 5,000 miles from home.

There’s an area in Rome called the Aventine Hill. It’s one of the seven hills on which ancient Rome was built. It has orange gardens (below), and is where the Basilica of Santa Sabina (the church with the painted ceiling, above) is located. There’s also a really nice view of some of the city, as well as the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Unfortunately, I only brought my iPhone with me, and wasn’t able to take very clear photos of the view.

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Also on Aventine Hill is The Aventine Keyhole. It’s literally a keyhole in a door. When you peer through it, you see a treelined path, and framed perfectly within the opening at the end is the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. I couldn’t get my phone to focus on the dome, but you get the idea.

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We also took a rather abbreviated trip to Vatican City. We made it through a good bit of the Vatican museums, and saw the Sistine Chapel. However, I was battling bronchitis at the end of our trip, and was fading quickly. We saw the line to enter St. Peter’s Basilica, and I knew that I just couldn’t make it. We turned around and went back to our Airbnb. I tell myself that we’ll just have to go back some day to finish what we started.

Our time in Rome was incredible. The city is large and bustling, the people friendly to American tourists, and the food and wine were delicious. I would love to go back some day to see things that we couldn’t squeeze in this time around.

Stay tuned for more photos from our time in Florence and Cinque Terre!

 

Pressure Cooker Carnitas

These are the easiest, most delicious carnitas you will ever make. Depending on how much time you have on your hands, make them in either the electric pressure cooker OR slow cooker.

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pressure_cooker_carnitas1

I have made these carnitas embarrassingly often since first discovering the recipe 3 years ago. The original recipe is for the slow cooker, which is great if you have all day, or have the presence of mind to throw everything together before you leave for work. For me, this is not always the case. After receiving an electric pressure cooker for Christmas, I decided to adapt the recipe. That way, I’m able to have carnitas in a fraction of the time.

Our favorite way to eat these carnitas is Chipotle burrito bowl-style. Toss some of this crispy yet tender pork in a bowl with some Cilantro Lime Rice and a variety of taco/bowl toppings (beans, cheese, guacamole, etc.), and you’re in business. They’re also excellent in a taco (corn tortillas, please).

The slow cooker preparation comes from Damn Delicious.

You’ll need (yields 8 servings):

  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 onions, quartered
  • 1 tbs chili powder
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 onions, quartered
  • 3-4 lbs pork shoulder, boneless and trimmed of excess fat
  • 2 oranges, juiced
  • 2 limes, juice
  • fresh cilantro, chopped

Combine all of the spices in a small bowl. Set aside.

For the Pressure Cooker

Cut the pork shoulder into 2- to 3-inch chunks.

Add the garlic cloves, quartered onions, and cubed pork to the electric pressure cooker (PC) insert. Sprinkle the spice mixture over everything. Using your hands, toss the garlic, onions, and pork around in the spices, rubbing the spices into the meat. Add the orange and lime juice to the PC insert.

Place the lid on and lock it. Depending on what kind of PC you have, you’ll want to do a couple of different things. If you have an Instant Pot: Cook for 25 minutes on high pressure. If you have one without the high/low pressure manual options (like mine): select the “meat” menu and cook for 25 minutes. Depending on your preference, you can allow the pressure to release naturally or do a quick release.

For the Slow Cooker

Add the garlic cloves, quartered onions, and pork to the slow cooker. Sprinkle the spice mixture over everything. Using your hands, toss the garlic, onions, and pork around in the spices, rubbing the spices into the meat. Add the orange and lime juice to the slow cooker.

Put the lid on and cook on low for 8 hours or on high for 4-5 hours.

Both Preparations

Here’s where both the electric PC and slow cooker recipes come back together.

Now that the pork shoulder is cooked through, you’ll want to crisp things up a bit. Preheat the broiler to high. Remove the pork from to a baking sheet lined with foil, and shred the meat. Spoon some of the juices and onions that are left over onto the shredded meat. Broil for 2-3 minutes.

Remove the sheet pan from the oven and toss the meat around a bit with tongs. Pour some more of the juices over the meat and broil for 2-3 additional minutes. Remove from the oven, top with chopped cilantro, and serve immediately. Definitely enjoy with some Cilantro Lime Rice.

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Rainbow Chicken Salad with Almond Honey Mustard Dressing – Updated

This salad is equal parts sweet and savory, and entirely delicious.

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Rainbow Chicken Salad with Almond Honey Mustard Dressing | A Nerd Cooks

I know that some people automatically think of salads as being “sad desk lunches.” While this certainly can be true, this particular salad definitely does not conform to that stereotype.

This salad has a little bit of everything: fresh greens, sweet red grapes and blueberries, filling chicken, and a savory dressing. The sweet freshness of the salad and savory dressing play really well together. Plus, while it doesn’t have all of the colors of the rainbow, it’s also very colorful and pretty.

Rainbow Chicken Salad with Almond Honey Mustard Dressing | A Nerd Cooks

Along these lines, I’ve shared a few savory-sweet salads with you in the past. See the Strawberry Pecan Salad with Beets, Watermelon Avocado Salad, or Strawberry Balsamic Salad for other delicious examples.

Sad desk lunch be gone!

Rainbow Chicken Salad with Almond Honey Mustard Dressing | A Nerd Cooks

This salad is based on a recipe from Pinch of Yum. I blogged about it almost 3 years ago exactly (original post found here), but tinkered with the proportions for the dressing a little bit.

You’ll need:

For the salad (makes 1 salad) –

  • 2 oz. cooked chicken, shredded or cut into bite-sized pieces (rotisserie chicken is a time-saver)
  • 1 cup red grapes, halved
  • 1/2 cup blueberries
  • 1/4 cup feta cheese
  • 1/4 cup almonds, slivered or sliced
  • lettuces/greens of your choice (I used a combination of spring mix greens and baby arugula)

For the dressing (makes enough for 4-5 salads) –

  • 4 tbs almond butter (sub peanut butter if desired)
  • 1 tbs olive oil
  • juice of 1 orange
  • 3 tbs water
  • 2 tbs stoneground mustard
  • 1 tbs honey
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 garlic clove

Assemble the salad in whatever vessel you choose. I prefer a bowl. Set it aside while you make the dressing.

Combine all dressing ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Blitz until smooth. Taste and add more salt as needed.

Pour the dressing over the salad and enjoy.

Rainbow Chicken Salad with Almond Honey Mustard Dressing | A Nerd Cooks
Rainbow Chicken Salad with Almond Honey Mustard Dressing | A Nerd Cooks