10/01/2012 12:16 EDT | Updated 12/01/2012 05:12 EST

Thanksgiving Recipes: David Rocco's Key To A Successful Thanksgiving Dinner

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."

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10 Thanksgiving Recipes