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Planning can take anxiety out of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday. No gifts are required or expected. There are no religious responsibilities beyond perhaps saying grace. It's a four-day weekend for many and chock full of all-American football games from high school to the pros. Then we have the pies, all rich or fruity, that play a delicious starring role.

Thanksgiving is all about the feast. Sometimes all that cooking begets anxiety and more anxiety. But it needn't.

A bit of planning _ okay, a lot of planning _ a little delegating, and even the cooks and hosts of the endless feast can enjoy everything from the shrimp cocktail to that slab of pecan pie.

But time is a-wasting. We need to start now.

Rosalie Harrington is new to Providence, but not to cooking and planning. For 20 years she ran Rosalie's Restaurant in Marblehead, Mass., a perennial "best of" on all those lists.

She makes stuffing from a recipe learned from her Italian grandmother and a perfect pickle mix inspired by her Southern grandmother. She roasts pumpkins and squash filled with cornbread, stuffs a cranberry relish into a PVC pipe (immaculately clean, of course) to create the can shape of store-bought cranberry. She makes gnocchi and apple crostadas.

Still, she doesn't miss a minute of her own party.

"I don't want people to put off hosting a dinner because of fear and anxiety," she said. "With thought and planning, it can go from burden to blast."

Harrington has a 30-day plan for Thanksgiving, but since the first two weeks are about cleaning the house and we can't do everything and we only have a week left until the big day, we're shortening her list.

+ Consider your turkey. If you're getting a frozen one, remember that it needs to be defrosting in the refrigerator. It'll that 24 hours in the fridge for each pound of turkey. That means a 20-plus pounder should be in the fridge by Saturday. If you're going for a fresh turkey, reserve one at the butcher or take your chances at the grocery store. Fresh turkeys should be purchased no earlier than Tuesday because they need to be cooked within two days of buying.

A pound and a half per person will allow for leftovers to be sent home with everyone. Plan your menu and divide it into categories, such as hors d'oeuvres, side dishes, desserts.

"Cook what you are comfortable with," Harrington advises. "Thanksgiving dinner is not necessarily a time for new recipes. Some people like the traditional."

Assign items to be brought by guests who want to do some cooking. Go with their strengths, not weaknesses, or you'll be sorry.

+ This weekend, check serving pieces, tablecloths, napkins. Decide on a centerpiece and special place cards.

+ Start cooking the items that can be frozen. This can be such things as gnocchi, which Harrington will toss with butter, sage and cheese and serve instead of a potato dish. She'll also roast dishes such as her cornbread-stuffed pumpkin, crostada and cranberry relish. Homemade breads and cornbreads can also be done ahead. She doesn't put the stuffing in the turkey, so that can be done ahead also.

(If you don't want to freeze a pie, make all your crusts and freeze them. Then you'll only be doing the filling the day before the holiday.)

Harrington suggests that every time you put on the oven to cook dinner, think about making another item for Thanksgiving at the same time. "Make your time in the kitchen worthwhile," she said.

She is very fond of baking squash at these times. They are so hard, people don't know what to do with them. Roasting one until it is al dente allows a cook to slice it easily and then use its contents to flavor a risotto, make a soup, as part of a bread or just cut up as roast vegetables.

+ Three days before, set the table.

+ Two days before, shop for the parts of the meal not yet prepared. These are things like hearty vegetables. "Gather inspiration from what is in the market," she said.

Don't forget coffee and cream, and bread and rolls.

One day before, everything should be cooked but the turkey. You could wait until today to do a potato dish or pies.

+ T-Day: Cook turkey, relax.