Stir-frying is a quick and easy way to turn a pile of garden vegetables into a nutritious and colorful meal.

The vegetables cook so fast that they retain most of their nutrients -- and there's no cooking-water to sap vitamins. With a variety of produce, a few exotic ingredients and a little imagination, you can stir up a Chinese banquet.

A wok, with gently sloping sides, is the ideal pan for stir-frying, but it's not absolutely necessary. A frying pan large enough to allow abandoned stirring will do just fine.

Stir-frying is simple:

You heat some oil -- peanut oil is recommended for Chinese cooking. When the oil is hot, you begin adding vegetables, starting with those that need the most cooking time and finishing with those that just need a minute.

Once the vegetables go into the pan, stir quickly to coat them with oil and seal in the juices.

When the vegetables reach the right stage of tender crispness -- and that's in a matter of minutes -- you can add broth or water with a little cornstarch, and stir until the sauce gets thick and shiny.

The joy of stir-frying is in the delightful array of dishes you can produce with this simple method. You can make something as simple as beans or zucchini with onions, or as complex as the multi-colored dish the Chinese call Buddha's Feast.

It's called Buddha's Feast because it's a vegetarian dish. You can add protein in the form of bean curd, nuts and seeds, and spice it up with dried mushrooms, hot Szechuan pepper, ginger, soy sauce, curry powder or any other spice you like.

If you're not satisfied with vegetarian fare, fry small chunks of chicken breast with onions until the meat is white and cooked through. Or you can add diced leftover meats or even fish to the almost-finished product. With this intuitive type of cooking, you'll probably come up with something new and different every time.

Timing is important in stir-frying. I find that it keeps me cool and calmer in the kitchen if I can chop all the vegetables before I turn on the stove. Then I don't overcook the first vegetables while I'm chopping the next batch. Once you start cooking, things happen fast.

Even the cutting can be creative -- and it shows up in the finished product. Try cutting carrots in diagonal slices, for instance, and onions in paper-thin rounds. Leave a touch of skin on eggplants for color, and try to use zucchini so young you can eat it peel, seeds and all.

Chop the vegetables and segregate them according to how fast they'll cook. Then start, say, with onions, garlic and mushrooms to flavor the oil.

Cook and stir just until they're soft, and add the long-cooking vegetables, like carrots, white turnips, kohlrabi. Cook and stir until they begin to get tender.

Then add the medium shift -- beans, broccoli, stems of Chinese cabbage, summer squash, eggplants and peppers.

Finish up with the vegetables that don't take much time, like the leaves of Chinese cabbage, shredded lettuce, tiny snow peas and tomato slices, which only need to be heated through.

When the vegetables are almost cooked, add just enough liquid, with a few teaspoons of cornstarch blended in, to cover the bottom of the pan. Cook and stir until the sauce thickens. If you like, you can cover the pan at this point to steam the vegetables slightly. Garnish with nuts of even raisins, and serve.

You don't have to serve rice with stir-fried food; you can use any grain, or none. Or pack the warm vegetables into Middle Eastern pita bread and top with grated cheese for an interesting hot sandwich. Try different combinations of herbs and seasoning. The variations on this theme are endless.

When you compare the prices, your vegetables will seem like money in your pocket.

Buy some Chinese tea.