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A Swedish summer

In Hancock Park, a cook treats her friends to a Scandinavian feast.

June 08, 2005|Betty Baboujon | Times Staff Writer

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.

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