TORONTO - Celebrity chef, TV show host and cookbook author David Rocco says Thanksgiving is his favourite holiday.
"It's really the spirit of what holidays should be about," he said, adding, "It's about food, family, celebration, giving thanks certainly, but also not to get overwhelmed and just really enjoy the holidays."
For hosts, the key to success and to optimize free time to spend with family and friends is to do plenty of planning and be organized, advises Rocco, who has lots of practice in that department as a father of three youngsters with a demanding schedule.
"Have a menu and think about what your abilities are in terms of how many dishes you can make, and if you have to make some of them a day in advance certainly you can do that."
Rocco, who grew up in Scarborough, Ont., and whose roots are Italian, acknowledges the most common Thanksgiving entree among many families in Canada is turkey, and says his family also incorporates the big bird in their feast. But being Italian, many more dishes are included.
"It's interesting because as Italians it's not just turkey. There's lasagna and sausages and this and that, and so lately my mom, the matriarch, she insists on having Thanksgiving at her house, and now it's become a little more traditional, with the turkey and some sides."
The 42-year-old learned a lot about cooking from his mother, whom he calls an "amazing cook and certainly my inspiration. For the most part she taught me how to cook."
Rocco advises making a list of the dishes you plan to serve and write down all the ingredients to create a shopping list. Certain dishes will have similar elements, like peeled garlic or chopped vegetables, so save time by preparing enough for all the dishes.
Rocco's philosophy when it comes to traditional Italian cooking is to keep things simple "using the best ingredients you have available or you can afford or you can find. Then it's not so much cooking as assembly of those ingredients."
He offers recipes for some side dishes that are a twist on the traditional. For instance, he's created a fun spin on mashed potatoes "using my, dare I say, ethnicity, my Italian background, to take a Thanksgiving staple classic like mashed potatoes ... this is essentially mashed potatoes with amazing goodies. It's a great leftover dish too."
He's added pancetta and an assortment of cheeses, and topped the mix with breadcrumbs before baking it in a large casserole. It can be made ahead.
He elevates a simple green bean salad using mint.
"What I like to do is bring in flavours that people don't traditionally think of. Mint is not a common herb that's used, I find, in North America," notes Rocco, who divides his time between Toronto and Italy, where he's filmed and hosted "David Rocco's Dolce Vita" and "Avventura," now airing in more than 100 countries.
"If you want to make it a bit more substantial you can take boiled potatoes, just cube them and mix into this salad as well. It's really nice," Rocco adds.
And don't be afraid to ask for help.
"I think holidays should be all about engaging the family and bringing people together," said Rocco.
"You might need help chopping mint. Your guests might want to take part in it and that's part of the celebration."
For dessert Rocco suggests using some of the bounty of the season in an apple yogurt cake, a favourite of his twin four-year-old daughters, Giorgia and Emily.
The easy-to-make cake mixes thinly sliced apples and some yogurt. "You sprinkle some sugar over it to get this beautiful glaze going."
But if you run out of time to make dessert, don't sweat it. "I'm like, when it comes to picking and choosing your poison here, I'll sooner go to a great bake shop or farmers market and get a pumpkin pie and call it a day. I'm not afraid of doing that."
Rocco believes in using good-quality olive oil.
"I have two types — regular olive oil for sauteeing and I have my super olive oil that I just use to drizzle. I call it my Italian MSG. A lot of restaurants, especially in Italy, they won't finish a dish in butter, which is common here in North America. They'll just finish it with a little olive oil, a really good olive oil, so I swear to having the best olive oil and using that to add to my recipes. It's super important."
His most recent TV effort is a six-part series now airing on Food Network Canada, "David Rocco's Amalfi Getaway," set in what is "probably my favourite place in Italy."
Rocco's first cookbook "La Dolce Vita Cookbook" (2008) was followed up by "Made in Italy" (both HarperCollins), published a year ago, almost coinciding with the birth of his son Dante. The cookbook will be reissued in trade paperback in late October.
"It's the best time in my life right now," Rocco said with a smile. "Everything just feels right. I know kind of where I am, where I should be and it's where I want to go, so it's really nice."
ALSO: 10 Thanksgiving recipes.
This is my turkey recipe from last year, but it came out so good that I’m making it again this year. It includes a simple marinade of coconut milk, buttermilk, and pomegranate juice that will make your turkey moist and flavorful. Recipe: Coconut Milk and Pomegranate Marinated Turkey Photo: tuchodi on Flickr
Need a dish to bring to a friend's Thanksgiving dinner that's fairly easy to make but that needs to impress? Here's one solution. Everyone loves cornbread, and this one has zing thanks to a one-two punch of ginger and poblano. To go the extra mile, make this, and for those with more sensitive palates, bring a more traditional cornbread, as well. Recipe: Ginger and Poblano Cornbread
Everyone expects to eat a traditional green bean salad at Thanksgiving, but why not change it up a bit and throw your guests a curve ball with this light and refreshing radicchio and haricot vert salad? The candied walnuts add a hint of sweetness to the bitter greens and provides for a Thanksgiving feel. Recipe: Radicchio and Haricot Vert Salad with Candied Walnuts
I know that many of you will be striving to cook seasonally this Thanksgiving. Instead of using frozen peas and corn, since they're not available in the greenmarkets right now, try this fall-friendly dish. The parsnips bring color and texture to the maple roasted carrots, and best of all, the prep time here is so minimal you can work on more complicated mains or sides without stress. Recipe: Maple Roasted Carrots and Parsnips Photo: Jon Mountjoy on Flickr
Trade that boring pumpkin pie recipe for a new and improved Thanksgiving dessert: Pumpkin Ginger Bread Pudding! Bread pudding is hard to turn down, but for those who love pumpkin pie as their Thanksgiving dessert of choice, the pumpkin in this bread pudding will convert even those hardcore pie lovers. Recipe: Pumpkin Ginger Bread Pudding
Ever feel disappointed when you finish your slice of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie and start hunting around for something... better? Welcome a pumpkin gingersnap cheesecake to your Thanksgiving table. It's also great because unlike regular pumpkin pie, cheesecake freezes well, meaning that your leftover meals can still end with a little sweetness days later. Recipe: Pumpkin Gingersnap Cheesecake Photo: jeffreyw on Flickr
This is one of my favorite stuffing recipes that I like to serve along with some nice collard greens. I added a seasonal favorite into the mix -- the pumpkin -- and the cinnamon, raisins, and pears add a hint of sweetness to the dish. All the complex flavors are bound to make this one of your Thanksgiving winning dishes! Recipe: Pumpkin and Herb Stuffing Photo: Maggie Hoffman on Flickr
My friend Marc Forgione created a dish to prevent having to fight over the succulent dark meat. This turkey leg roulade makes it easy for everyone to get a taste. Serve it in addition to a whole turkey or even as the main course! Recipe: Turkey Leg Roulade
This recipe is a play on Irish colcannon, a staple peasant dish of mashed potatoes with cabbage and bacon. The cabbage takes a hike in favor of crispy, healthy kale (and we keep it veg here, since there'll be a lot of meat on the table). Add in some creamy goat cheese to give it an extra tang -- and to use less butter. Recipe: Mashed Potatoes with Goat Cheese and Kale Photo: VegaTeam on Flickr
Rice and cornbread in a stuffing? Not only is it a delicious combination in this very Thanksgiving-friendly side, but it's also gluten-free! Yes, a gluten-free stuffing, and it's so tasty that even if no one at your table has any wheat allergies, you may want to try it just to get a new stuffing in the mix. Recipe: Wild Rice and Cornbread Stuffing Photo: ocean yamaha on Flickr