Everyone has found a perch in the sprawling backyard -- under the bright-fuchsia bougainvilleas dangling off the sycamore tree, next to the slate pool tucked behind the wooden fence, at the roomy patio table by the French doors -- but not without asking the host an important question first: “How do you eat these?”
“Twist off the tail, squeeze the sides, and the meat comes out,” says Helene Henderson. “You can suck the juices out of the head like the real Vikings do -- or not.”
This is Los Angeles, after all, not Lulea, Sweden.
And Henderson hardly expects her guests to wield toothpicks against crayfish, digging into tiny claws and legs for every bit of meat, then shouting “skal!” before moving on to the next crustacean, just as she remembers Swedes doing back home.
It’s enough for her to hear them delight over their first taste of a Swedish crayfish feast (“It’s like a really tasty lobster!”).
Henderson, who began catering professionally in L.A. about eight years ago, has fed many a hungry celebrity and catered for the likes of Kiefer Sutherland and Barbra Streisand. That explains the singer’s blurb on the back of Henderson’s recently published “The Swedish Table.” It’s part cookbook, part childhood memoir, part ode to Sweden.
With an African American father, Henderson didn’t exactly blend in with her Swedish side of the family in Lulea, where she was the only black person in the northern town. “It was one long bad hair day,” she jokes about her childhood. And anywhere beyond her hometown, “people would stop and look at me and wonder,” making her feel like an outsider. When she sat down to eat, though, there was no question she belonged, no matter what she looked like -- she loved what was on the table as much as anyone else.
In and out of the kitchen
Henderson grew up cooking, but when she left home more than two decades ago, she shut the kitchen door behind her. “I was looking for something more glamorous to do,” she says. So she tried modeling, then designing titles for films, but eventually she returned to cooking because that’s what she loved. “I think when you leave a place,” she says, “you feel that connection through food even more.”
And tonight in her Hancock Park home, which she shares with director husband John Stockwell and their three children, she’s feeding guests -- an eclectic collection of friends in the movie business and neighbors -- her delicious memories. For the first time, instead of her usual California spread, Henderson is throwing a Swedish midsummer-style feast.
“Friends are excited about this dinner,” says producer Rick Dallago, a friend who’s co-hosting. “They don’t know what to expect. Some are expecting meatballs.”
“No meatballs,” interjects Henderson. “This is my Sweden.”
And by that, she means miniature red beet latkes, a dandelion gooseberry salad, grilled baby potatoes with tender green beans, an asparagus salad and, yes, a mountain of bright-red crayfish. The menu is a celebration of the precious few months of bounty and light in Sweden -- the only time of year, Henderson says, when one didn’t have to rely on frozen or pickled vegetables. There, dandelion greens are abundant even on the roadsides, asparagus is a summer treat, and a crayfish feast is one of the most welcome excuses to dine outdoors. And the potatoes on tonight’s menu? “A Swedish meal without potatoes is like Thanksgiving without turkey,” she says.
But “just in case,” she also grills some skinless, boneless chicken breasts and, so they won’t be lonely, adds a fresh corn salad and a tray of sliced heirloom tomatoes from the farmers market.
Score one for the caterer’s instinct. After hearing the crayfish drill, guest Kathy Smith declares, “It’s too much work.” And sure enough, the exercise guru, whose daughter Kate goes to school with Henderson and Stockwell’s 16-year-old, Celia, has nary a crustacean on her plate, but ready-to-eat chicken and an assortment of salads.
Behind her, though, Kevin Gasser is busy twisting and squeezing. He’s so adept at teasing out the precious crayfish booty that he’s feeding not only himself but practically everyone on his bench. Pretty soon Dana Sano alights and tastes a tail Gasser has just peeled. A frequent visitor to New Orleans, Gasser knows all about crayfish (or crawfish, as Louisianans call them). “They’re great. It’s just a little messy, but it’s very tasty,” says Gasser, who, like Sano, is in the music business.
He goes for seconds (or maybe it’s thirds?) at the buffet table, where Swedish and Californian dishes are spread out on a pomegranate-red cloth anchored by a vase overflowing with hydrangeas from the garden. On a side table, two trays remind guests to leave room for dessert: homemade rhubarb crisp with whipped cream and an assortment of cookies.
By now, the dandelion salad is almost gone -- its ragged and tangy greens a delicious counterpoint to the plump gooseberries, which taste like a juicy cross between pineapple and papaya. And the miniature red beet latkes have disappeared. No surprise. Made with equal parts beet and potato, they’ve got an earthy flavor and a hint of sweetness. After they’re quickly pan-fried in butter and olive oil, the bright bite-size dots are punctuated by dollops of creme fraiche. They’ve made quite an impression on one guest in particular.
“I don’t know what this is, but it’s going down!” says Chris Taloa. The actor, who’s in both of Stockwell’s surfing movies, “Blue Crush” and the upcoming “Into the Blue,” arrived with a surfboard in tow for Henderson and Stockwell’s 13-year-old son, Casper. Barefoot, he pads around the house. He’s been here before -- countless times.
“Every time I go to acting class, I stop here first and eat the leftovers,” the Hawaii native says. “And then after class, I come back and eat what’s new.”
Like Taloa, many of the guests are friends from Stockwell’s films. Music supervisor Sano has worked on a couple of them, and that’s Sanoe Lake, who costarred in “Blue Crush,” heading for a poolside seat with her pile of crayfish. At one end of the patio table is Matt Johnson, who wrote “Into the Blue.”
As with her fail-safe Swedish-Californian menu, Henderson hasn’t left much to chance tonight. With her husband away shooting a film in Brazil, she corralled not only Dallago to co-host, but another friend to help in the kitchen, personal chef Trevor Zimmerman (who styled some photos for her cookbook), and a third to serve drinks, drummer Kevin Jarvis.
Don’t forget the aquavit
Jarvis shows guests to the bar, which is stocked with soft drinks, wine, Norwegian water and a huge Swedish vodka bottle filled with Henderson’s homemade aquavit and encased in a block of petal-embellished ice.
The frosty vodka, steeped with citrus rinds and spices, is refreshingly bracing and fragrant. But at least as popular tonight is red wine, and most guests seem to be nursing stemmed and not shot glasses.
Henderson’s not bothered. Like any good host, she isn’t pushing anything on anyone, and she has put everyone at ease right from the start -- even those who insist on rolling up their sleeves to help, like screenwriter Jonathan Roberts.
“What can I do to make myself the most useful?” the “Lion King” writer demands upon arrival.
Henderson smiles. “Drink. Eat. Chill. Mingle,” she says, leading him by the shoulders out of the kitchen. “Enjoy yourself.”
Then she roves, making sure everyone’s getting enough to eat, nevermind her. “I don’t eat when I cook for a party, I’m so used to working.” She deftly replenishes the tray of tomatoes before every last slice is gone as Zimmerman piles more crayfish on the platter.
Henderson couldn’t be more relaxed -- even about matters that would flummox many a host, such as how many guests she’s feeding.
“I know there’ll definitely be less than 30,” she said earlier. “But if John were here, there’d be 80 people. We’ll have a party and all of a sudden there are all these people in the house. I just switch to smaller dinner plates.”
Tonight, the bigger the plate, the better. There are 60 pounds of crayfish and 20 or so guests.
At that volume, the crayfish had to be cooked in batches. But they cook quickly -- just 10 minutes from the time they’re dropped into the boiling water. The payoff for the diligent diner is a little tail with the cute looks of a baby shrimp but the grown-up taste of a sweet lobster. With such luxurious flavor au naturel, the dipping sauce of butter, herbs and lemon juice is gilding the lily.
As evening falls, the pile of crayfish shells grows, and the pace slows. The guests are in little postprandial groups, heads close together in conversation, laughing and teasing and confiding.
In the family room, Henderson’s chatting with good friend Pilar McCurry, a music supervisor who was one of her first roommates in L.A. The family dog, Hopper, is mingling too, running around with canine guest Molly, who’d tailed along with Taloa and his girlfriend, Kim Rose Walter. Henderson’s 20-month-old, Caden, has gone to bed, but Celia’s hanging out with her friends and brother Casper in the family room.
It’s a familiar scene in the household, Henderson says.
Every year, she and Stockwell throw a few parties, all related to his films. “But it’s only the Christmas party that I really consider my party,” she says.
Until now, that is, thanks to her Sweden.