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A SYMPHONY OF SIMPLE EATS

Conductor Skitch Henderson came into American living rooms directing the NBC orchestras that played with television legends from Dave Garroway and Steve Allen to Johnny Carson. Thirty years later, he still strikes up the band, as pops conductor of the Florida Orchestra and as founder of the New York Pops. But he'd like a place in our kitchens, too, as a cookbook author.

Ruth and Skitch Henderson's Seasons in the Country, (Viking Studio Press, $24.95) could have been just one more Beautiful Cookbook celebrating the charmed lives of the rich and famous in

Connecticut's postcard countryside.

It's not. Their first cookbook establishes that the Hendersons know food as well as music.

And despite cosmopolitan lives, they have a passion for country cooking and plain food _ from old-fashioned fruit compotes and grilled red snapper to one-pot German eintopfs of chicken and yellow peas. Skitch is a baker turned barbecuer, whose favorite meat is pork. Ruth is nuts for cookies and breadsticks.

Their book is a calendar of menus and recipes for the special occasions of each season of the year, from a fall afternoon picnic of ham, bean salad and apricot bread pudding to a buffet of leg of lamb buffet on Easter.

All are lushly photographed by Lans Christensen, their neighbor and photographer for Gourmet magazine. Instead of feeling intimidated by the recipes, you feel tempted to try them.

They are invitingly simple and easy to follow. Dozens have only two or three ingredients (for example, potato, onions and marjoram), and few ingredients are more exotic than a red pepper.

Inspiring all this is "the Country" of the title, 200 acres in the Litchfield Hills near New Milford.

At their Hunt Hill Farms, the Hendersons have indulged their love of fresh food and cooking since 1967. What a change from the spotlight, where Henderson has spent half a century. In the 1940s, while playing with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland, Henderson made his name as a musician and changed his name. He had been Lyle Cedric Henderson until Crosby dubbed him Skitch. The nickname stuck through decades as music director for NBC and a parallel career in symphony halls around the world. (Henderson became pops conductor for the Florida Orchestra in 1985.)

In such a life, fine dining and grand entertaining became a second love for Henderson, but his passion for food dates back to his childhood: He was born in England and grew up in the American Midwest.

For Ruth, his German-born wife, food and cooking have been a constant interest. During their marriage, she has run four restaurants _ including one in Manhattan and another in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands _ making sophisticated bistros out of restored old buildings.

In 1972 she began a cooking school and cookware store at the Silo on their farm. It has attracted many of the nation's top chefs, including Jacques Pepin and the late Bert Greene, to teach a full spectrum of cuisines.

Now 72, Henderson is active with both food and music, and in a recent backstage interview in St. Petersburg, he was uncertain how to answer the question of which he liked more.

"There's almost no pleasure like a beautiful meal. It's like hearing a beautiful recital," he finally said.

Still, Henderson insists that fine food is within range of Everycook. Although he takes a set of good knives on his travels and has his own shed for barbecuing at home, he insists that good food doesn't require expensive ingredients or tools.

"Cook whatever integrity or curiosity leads you to. Use what is there. Don't look for what they have in California. Use what you have that's good and fresh."

The food pictured in the book, he says, is very real: "Everything in the food was prepared, photographed and eaten."

Henderson admits they are privileged to live in an area where small farms produce fresh eggs, orchards bear peaches and pears and the bushes blaze with berries. He says exotic foods from pricey Manhattan grocers don't compare. Nonetheless, he urged cooks in Florida and elsewhere to take advantage of whatever fresh fruits and vegetables are in season. His chief ingredients are ordinary tomatoes, peppers, onions and squash.

While our seasons don't match Connecticut's, we do have pool parties, Fourth of July picnics and breakfasts in bed. The Hendersons' new book provides a useful guide on how to celebrate them _ and a visual feast that may satisfy our appetite for nostalgia.

SKITCH HENDERSON RECIPES

Yellow Chicken Eintopf

4 pounds dried yellow split peas

2 4{-pound chickens

6 quarts water

2 large cloves garlic (we use elephant garlic), peeled and bruised

8 white peppercorns

4 stalks celery (with leaves), quartered

2 medium parsnips

2 medium carrots

2 medium onions, peeled

2 teaspoons salt

4 bay leaves

2 large heads cauliflower, separated into medium florets

2 cups croutons

1 lemon, sliced

Chopped fresh dill

Soak the peas in a large pot of water at least overnight. Drain and set aside. Place the chickens, including innards (but not the liver) in a large pot. Cover with the water and add the next 8 ingredients. Heat to boiling, reduce heat, and simmer for 1 hour. Transfer chickens to a platter. Allow broth to cool, then skim fat and strain.

Return broth to the same large pot. Add the peas and heat to boiling; reduce heat and simmer until tender, about 2 hours. Fifteen minutes before peas are done, add the cauliflower and return to a simmer. Meanwhile, cut the chickens into parts with kitchen scissors. Five minutes before peas are done, add the chicken parts. Continue to simmer until chicken is warmed through, about 5 minutes more. Serve with croutons, sliced lemon, and dill. Serves 12-14.

Stuffed Mini-Pumpkins

8 mini-pumpkins (as uniform in size as possible)

5 ripe McIntosh apples

{ cup chopped dates

2{ tablespoons sliced almonds, toasted

4 teaspoons molasses

Preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly butter a baking sheet or dish and set aside. Place the pumpkins in the bottom tier of a double steamer filled with water. Place apples on top tier. Heat water to boiling, cover, and steam 10 minutes. Remove apples, cover, and continue steaming 5 minutes longer. (If you are steaming the apples and pumpkins one at a time, steam the apples 10 minutes and the pumpkins 15.) Remove pumpkins and allow to cool slightly. Cut off tops of pumpkins and set aside. Scrape out seeds and strings. Set each pumpkin on the prepared baking sheet. Peel, core, and slice the apples. Combine the apples, dates, almonds, and molasses in a bowl; toss until well mixed. Fill each pumpkin with the apple mixture. Place tops on pumpkins and bake until completely warmed through, about 20 minutes. Serves 8.

Plumped Fruit with Applejack Cream

2 11-ounce packages mixed dried fruit

1 16-ounce container sour cream

2 tablespoons light brown sugar

1 tablespoon applejack or apple butter

1 vanilla bean, cut into several bits

Place the fruit in a medium bowl and cover with water. Allow to stand several hours. Drain just before serving.

Combine the sour cream, brown sugar, applejack or apple butter, and vanilla bean in a bowl. Stir until well blended.

To serve, divide fruit among individual serving bowls. Add a generous dollop of applejack cream to each. Serves 8.

Lime Sorbet

Juice of 18 fresh limes (about 2 cups)

2 cups sugar

Zest of 4 limes

1{ cups heavy cream

{ cup water

1 lime, thinly sliced

Place all ingredients except lime slices in a food processor and process until smooth. Place mixture in an ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer's instructions. Spoon into a 1-quart souffle dish and serve immediately, or place in freezer until ready to serve. Remove from freezer 20 minutes before serving and garnish with slices of fresh lime. Makes 1 quart.

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