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.
Crayfish feast (Kraftor)
Total time: 40 minutes
Note: From "The Swedish Table" by Helene Henderson. Live crayfish are available at Santa Monica Seafood in Santa Monica, (310) 393-5244, and in Costa Mesa, (949) 574-0274 (call in advance to order); at Quality Seafood in Redondo Beach, (310) 374-2382; and online from www.cajuncrawfish.com. For the dipping sauce, you can squeeze the juice of one lemon into clarified butter instead of serving with lemon wedges.