Tropical Thai in the Dusty Desert

Our last Cub Scout camp out ever — and I wanted to make something special for the Saturday group dinner.

Already being in the cultural mash-up mode, I opted for traditional Thai — a tropical cuisine whose flavors might adapt nicely to the particular leisurely pace of a desert camp out.

Willa, the desert and stormy skies

Willa, the desert and stormy skies

We got to our friends Greg and Mary Ann’s private property, Camp Nylen in the Joshua Tree desert around 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon, the first ones to arrive. After opening camp and getting settled in, I began simple dinner preparations for the three families that would be there that evening. I had made a pesto pasta and brought a couple steaks. Greg arrived with his son Gram, pal Vic and his sons Miles and Logan got there with five different kinds of Aidells sausages, and we got ready to throw some red oak logs on the Santa Maria grill.

And then the weather changed.

We sat on a ridge with our beers watching towering thunderclouds churn in the distance, lighting up the gloaming afternoon with dramatic bursts of lightning. And then the temperature dropped suddenly and we felt the first big drops.

After the rain passed

After the rain passed

We ran for shelter. Vic was struggling to put up the portico to his tent, so we helped him — and were soaked like wet poodles within a matter of moments. Then I noticed our enormous and poorly weather-rated tent swaying and undulating in the weather. I rushed over and propped up the sagging poles and attempted to secure the stakes as the sky exploded in rain, thunder and electricity all around me.

And then it passed. The desert warmed up again, the ground dried, and we cooked our dinner and drank our beer.

The next day the cars began rolling in as other Cub Scout families arrived and set up camp, listening in wonder to our storm stories.

Our tent and an angry sky

Our tent and an angry sky

“I sure wish we had been here for that!” several said. Spoiler alert: the second day’s narrative follows a similar trajectory to the first. And they would have their chance.

Afternoon arrived and I set my sous cooks Vic and Del to threading beef and pork onto bamboo skewers for satay, while I steamed sticky rice and got the grill going.

As if sensing what I was cooking and wanting to set the proper mood, the normally bone-dry desert air suddenly became humid.

“I think it’s going to rain again,” my son Flynn said.

Sean O., Vic, the other Sean and gai yang chicken wings with sticky rice

Sean O., Vic, the other Sean and gai yang chicken wings with sticky rice

“Nah,” I replied, perhaps optimistically. Rain is one of my favorite things, and the previous night display was magical. But I was concerned for the integrity of our Taj Mahal-esque tent.

Dinner was ready — gai yang grilled chicken wings with sweet chili sauce and sticky rice; fragrant tamarind-infused pad thai noodles; pork and beef satay with peanut sauce; green papaya salad with peanuts; grilled vegetables, served with Barley Forge growlers of IPA and a deliciously complementary coconut-infused rye stout.

The hungry queued up, I grabbed a plate of food and went to sit by myself and contemplate the sky. It looked as if Flynn would prevail — a dark and angry mass of thundering, flashing clouds were headed our way.

The spread

The spread

...And the hungry dig in

…And the hungry dig in

We just had time to finish dinner before the cold swept in once again, the big sloppy drops began to fall, and the wind started swirling. People rushed about, one friend’s tent went rolling across the desert like a tumbleweed.

“Is that your tent?” someone said to me, concerned. I looked over to see the strange, bloated and misshapen form of what was our tent, undulating like a big nylon jellyfish. Rushing out in the pouring gale, I found the whole back half of the tent and one of the wings had collapsed. I struggled to drain off the water and right the tent as Leslie, Flynn and our pal-and-hero Vic arrived like the cavalry to help. A pole had splintered and if the tent was to stand, I was to become the human pole. I held up my side against blasts of wind and sheets of rain, 11-year-old Flynn stood heroically by my side securing another pole while Leslie and Vic futilely hammered stakes deeper into the wet sand and battened down cords.


We stood there, us versus nature, for what seemed like eternity but was likely 10 or 15 minutes, soaked to our core. As I was trying to better secure my side of the tent, the fragmented pole — as if spring loaded — slid across my arm, depositing a two-inch fiberglass splinter in the fat of my palm. At the same moment, a double rainbow appeared in the sky.

And then just like the night before, the thunderhead passed, the rain stopped, the desert warmed up again and all was quiet and calm. Miraculously, the inside of our tent was dry.

A few of the Cub Scout moms attended to my wound and extracted the last of the fiberglass, we turned to the tequila and hastened down to the fire pit where S’mores and good conversation were on the agenda.

The kids make breakfast

The kids make breakfast

A typical desert morning followed — red sunrise, followed by dry white heat. Flynn and Gram took over the kitchen to make bacon and thick french toast dipped in corn flakes. At the far eastern horizon, a few clouds had gathered. But we would be packed up and on the road by 10:30 a.m. Our tent couldn’t afford to wait around and see.

*    *    *

Joshua Tree desert pad thai
serves 4-6

12 oz. dried wide rice noodles
4 dried tamarind pods
1 cup hot water
3 tbsp. oil
3 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup Thai fish sauce
1/2 cup sugar (or 1 cup palm sugar pods dissolved in 1/2 cup hot water)
1 lb. shrimp, cleaned, shelled and butterflied
6 green onions, cut into 1-inch segments
1 cup bean sprouts
1/2 cup chopped peanuts
several sprigs cilantro

Soak the dry noodles in warm water according to the directions or until soft. (Usually for 5-10 minutes.)

While noodles are softening, remove skin from tamarind pods and place in the cup of hot water, breaking apart as needed to make sure all tamarind is covered. Let sit for 10 minutes, then using your fingers or a wooden spoon, massage the pulp from the seeds as much as possible. Strain the tamarind water through a fine mesh sieve and discard pulp and seeds.

Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a large skillet and pour in the egg, cooking like an omelet, turning once. Remove from heat and slice into thin strips.

Heat 2 tbsp. oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and add shrimp. Cook, stirring, until they are pink and translucent — 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add tamarind water, fish sauce and sugar to the pan and stir until combined and bubbling. Add noodles and cook, tossing and stirring, for about 2-3 minutes — until sauce has thickened and coated noodles, and noodles have softened further.

Remove from heat. Place noodles on a large serving platter (or on individual plates, if you prefer), and top with bean sprouts, green onions, chopped peanuts and cilantro.

14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michelle
    Jun 19, 2015 @ 00:53:28

    It’s been a long time, but I don’t think this matches up with my memories of Girl Scout camp. 😉 Bravo!


    • scolgin
      Jun 19, 2015 @ 00:59:21

      We were actually chatting about how we were pleased that, rather than joining Brownies, Willa had spent her young girlhood tagging along with the Cub Scout pack, learning to use a bow and arrow and fire a rocket. 🙂


      • Michelle
        Jun 19, 2015 @ 01:02:08

        Good for her! I don’t remember much about Brownies and G.S. other than (1) hating my troop immensely when my family moved back to small town KY, and (2) the cooking badge I got for making … wait for it … a Spam loaf studded with canned pineapple rings and cloves!

      • scolgin
        Jun 19, 2015 @ 01:05:47

        Now THAT’S a post I’ll be waiting for. 😉

  2. Mom
    Jun 19, 2015 @ 14:52:33

    You guys are heroic.


  3. Cheryl "Cheffie Cooks" Wiser
    Jun 19, 2015 @ 16:06:10

    Happy Father’s Day Sean!!! Great Post.


  4. andreathompson2
    Jun 19, 2015 @ 18:30:08

    Great post. You guys do SUCH fun things!


  5. Ekc
    Jun 19, 2015 @ 23:56:30

    Sounds like you guys had a lovely time🌈
    I’m taking my boys camping this weekend….and even though it’s blazing hot outside after that story I’ll bring the rain shield just in case! 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: