A tolerable potato salad is the saving of many a summer buffet and pub lunch. Everything else may lack lustre - the quiche may be rubbery, the lettuce limp, the bread stale - but even the most inept catering operation can usually muster a bucket of boiled new potatoes, doused in a slick of mayonnaise from a jar.

Making a potato salad is not difficult but, as with most commonplace recipes, there are rules and refinements, preferences and family traditions. My advice is for those not set in their ways. The potato salad, after all, is a perfect vehicle for secondary or even primary additions: after the basics, there are endless permutations.

The basics? First, the potato must be a waxy- fleshed variety - either a new potato or a salad potato. Main-crop types, when mixed with a mayonnaise dressing, end up more like mash; and with a vinaigrette dressing, they absorb far more than is palatable. The potatoes should be on the small side: most good salad potatoes will be elongated - tailor-made for slicing thickly.

Next, the cooking. Wash or scrub the raw potatoes, no more. They are best steamed, or microwaved (small quantities only). Do not let them overcook. As soon as you can bear to handle them, cut them in half or thick slices (the cut sides will absorb the dressing more easily), pulling off stray bits of skin as you work.

Dress immediately with just enough vinaigrette to coat, so that the flavour is sucked in as the potatoes cool. This is a good idea, even when the final dressing is mayonnaise-based, as it will reduce the amount needed. Bear in mind that mayonnaise on hot potatoes separates greasily.

The dressing should be accented more towards the sharp side than usual, and thoroughly sea

soned to balance the blandness of the potatoes. More vinaigrette, or mayonnaise, can go on later.

Herbs (be generous) and seasonings can be added while the potatoes are hot, tepid or cool. Remember that heat may wilt tender greenery, but will release the flavour more effectively.

Pommes a l'huile

The classic French potato salad, usually served as an accompaniment to a poached garlic sausage. The initial flavouring of the hot potatoes is wine, followed by a mustardy vinaigrette.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 1 1/2 lb (675g) new or salad potatoes, cooked and halved, sliced or quartered

1 large shallot, very finely chopped

2tbs chopped parsley

2 generous tbs dry white wine

For the vinaigrette:

1tbs white wine vinegar

1tsp Dijon mustard

4-5tbs groundnut or sunflower oil

salt and pepper

Preparation: Make the dressing in the usual way. Toss the hot potatoes with the shallot, parsley and white wine. Then add enough dressing to coat the potatoes nicely, and leave to cool. Add a little more dressing if needed, or sharpen with extra vinegar, and adjust seasoning before serving.

Indian potato salad

In this spiced salad, the hot oil, scented with garlic, ginger and chilli, takes the place of the first dose of vinaigrette, then spiced yoghurt replaces mayonnaise.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 1lb (450g) new or salad potatoes,

cooked and halved, sliced or quartered

1lb (450g) cherry tomatoes, halved

1/2 pint (290ml) strained Greek yoghurt

2tbs vegetable or sunflower oil

1in (2.5cm) piece of fresh ginger, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1 green chilli, finely chopped

1/2 tbs cumin seeds

1/2 tbs black mustard seeds

3tbs chopped coriander

salt and cayenne pepper

Preparation: Mix the potatoes and tomatoes. Heat the oil in a small frying pan until very hot. Add the ginger, garlic and chilli and stir-fry for a few seconds. Tip over potatoes and tomatoes and stir. Dry-fry cumin seeds and mustard seeds in a small, heavy frying pan over a high heat until they give off a fragrant, nutty scent. Tip into a bowl, cool, then crush coarsely. Add to the potatoes along with the yoghurt, coriander and salt, and mix evenly. Spoon into a serving dish and dust lightly with cayenne pepper (or paprika if one chilli alone is enough for you).

Potato, lemon and coriander salad

Inspired by a potato salad in a local Greek taverna, which came laden with fresh coriander

and sharpened with lemon rather than vinegar.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 1 1/2 lb (675g) new or salad potatoes, cooked and halved, sliced or quartered

2tbs chopped coriander

finely grated zest of 1 lemon

6 spring onions, chopped

For the dressing:

4-5tbs olive oil

juice of 1/2 lemon

salt and pepper

Preparation: Make the dressing in the usual way. Toss the hot potatoes with enough dressing to moisten, then mix in all the remaining ingredients. When cool, taste and adjust seasonings, adding more dressing if needed.

Potato and beetroot salad

A lovely combination, but do not mix the potato and beetroot before serving or you will end up with a less than lovely mess. Home-cooked beetroot (boil, bake in foil or microwave in clingfilm) tastes vastly superior to beetroot bought cooked.

Serves 6

Ingredients: 1lb (450g) new or salad potatoes, cooked and halved, sliced or quartered

1lb (450g) freshly cooked beetroot with no added vinegar, diced

1tbs chopped chervil

1tbs chopped parsley

a generous handful of frisee lettuce leaves

For the dressing:

1tbs white wine vinegar

2tsp whole grain mustard

6tbs groundnut or sunflower oil

salt and pepper

Preparation: Make dressing in the usual way,

taste and adjust seasoning. Toss the potatoes with about one-quarter of the dressing while still hot. Toss the beetroot, while still hot if home-cooked, with another quarter of the dressing. Keep both separate. When the vegetables are tepid, mix the herbs, evenly divided, into each. When cool, add more dressing to the potatoes if needed.

Just before serving, toss the frisee in a little of the remaining dressing and make a bed of it on a serving plate. Pile the beetroot up in the centre and spoon the potato around it (or however else you want to them).

Herring and potato salad

A more substantial French salad of herring and potato. Harengs saurs (cured herring) are rarely available in this country - in France, they are sold in vacuum packs - but maatjes (young) herring are more common. Rollmops and the other pickled herring in sweet, sharp marinades are not suitable.

You can also add diced, tart apple (a Granny Smith is good), and bind the salad with mayonnaise or creme fraiche.

Serves 4-6 as a main course salad

Ingredients: 1 1/2 lb (675g) new or salad potatoes, cooked and halved, sliced or quartered

8-12oz (220-340g) maatjes herring or French harengs saurs, cut into bite-sized pieces

1/2 mild onion, finely chopped

2tbs chopped fresh parsley

3-5tbs vinaigrette

salt and pepper

Preparation: Mix all the ingredients while the potatoes are still hot, adding more vinaigrette as needed. Go easy with the salt as the herring are fairly salty themselves. When cool, taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.