It's hard to believe that Mark Bittman, a.k.a. "The Minimalist," author of a hugely popular, eponymous weekly cooking column in The New York Times and six cookbooks, ever had a qualm, let alone an hysterical moment, when preparing a dinner party. He openly admits that he did, but he also admits that he has learned to calm his qualms and now calms ours in his newest cookbook The Minimalist Entertains. Follow his basic admonition (one I have violated all too many times) do not succumb to an excess of ambition, keep your expectations reasonable and you'll find that you can serve a meal with special appeal, keep your cool and actually have a good time. Simple sophistication underlies the 40 menus offered here 10 for each season each garnished with advice on upping the ante with an added dish, finding the best ingredients and alternatives, casual wine suggestions and a reassuring, realistic timetable. There's an easy elegance to Bittman's cooking and to the way he puts these menus together, and there's hardly a menu here I couldn't wait to try. The spring dinners alone perfect right now are well worth the price of admission. Who could resist Pan-roasted Asparagus Soup, Salmon with Beurre Noisette and Pan-Crisped Potatoes followed by fresh ricotta topped with toasted walnuts and honey? All the others are just as tempting and just as effortless. Minimal cooking, maximal pleasure.

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