Stir-fries are the essence of a fresh, fast dinner and, while it does take a bit of time to prep the ingredients, once the pan is searing hot, the cooking is a snap.

No wok for traditional stir-fry? No worries. A flat-bottomed skillet or sauté pan works just as well. The bigger the cooking surface, the better. You want enough area to spread out the ingredients so that the meat sears and the vegetables bounce and sizzle until lightly cooked. That will keep them tender yet crisp.

High heat is the key to success. Preheat the pan so it's super-hot before adding the oil. Before you start, open the windows and turn on the fan. The basic technique in the recipe below provides guidelines and is open to endless variations, perfect for cooking our early summer vegetables now coming into the market. Let whatever you find be your guide to dinner. Once you get the knack of stir-frying, you'll never need to refer to a recipe again.

Stir-fries are vegetable-focused with meat optional. They're a wonderful way to use up the odds and ends of whatever is in the refrigerator crisper. Start with the sturdier vegetables that take longer to cook, such as fennel, carrots and celery. Then toss in the peppers and heartier greens, such as bok choy, and end with delicate baby spinach and pea shoots.

Right before you pull the pan from the stove, give it all a shot of a spicy, salty sauce. Serve this over rice noodles, white or brown rice or whole grain barley.

Dinner? Done!

Beth Dooley is the author of "In Winter's Kitchen." Find her at