Why are some vegetable stir fries better than others? There are several factors.
1) A better combination of vegetables;
2) Proper stir frying;
3) A good balance in flavors;
4) The freshest ingredients; or
5) All of the above.
Numbers 1 and 3 are a matter of personal preference. Number 2 is a skill that can be learned (see stir frying basics). Numbers 4 and 5 are what separate the good cooks from the mediocre ones. No matter how much you have perfected your stir frying skills, if your vegetables are already soggy even before they reach the wok, you still won’t get that crisp-tender texture that only a real cook can understand. And what texture is that exactly? It means that the vegetables are cooked through but when you bite each piece, there is still a light crunch that you can hear and feel. And that is only possible when you cook with truly fresh vegetables.
What does “the freshest ingredients” mean? That the vegetables have been recently purchased? No, not exactly. If you cook a vegetable stir fry with vegetables bought on the same day, the vegetables are still not necessarily fresh because they might have been sitting on the grocery shelves for two or three days, or even longer. Cooking with the freshest ingredients, therefore, involves a certain amount of skill in identifying vegetables that are truly fresh before purchasing.
The ideal scenario, of course, is to cook with freshly harvested vegetables. The mushrooms in the stir fry in the photo above, for instance, were from the Lotus Pod farm and I harvested the mushrooms myself (see The Lotus Pod agritour: organic backyard farming 101.
Realistically, we buy from the grocery or the market. How do we know if the vegetables are truly fresh? Here are a few tips.
1) As much as possible, stay away from vegetables that have been been bundled and taped. Some grocery stores are sneaky. They bundle together fresh and not-so-fresh vegetables together and they hide the not-so-fresh ones in the innermost part of the bundles so that you can’t see them. You should be able to inspect every piece for freshness. Green leaves shouldn’t have yellowish or brownish edges; string beans shouldn’t feel soft to the touch; tomatoes and onions shouldn’t have squishy spots; cucumbers and eggplants shouldn’t have bruises; and so on, and so forth.
2) If you buy from the market, ignore stalls that put their vegetables on display under the sun. Nothing dries up vegetables faster than the combination of direct sunlight and humidity especially during the hot summer months.
3) Identify reliable sellers that consistently sell fresh and good quality vegetables.
Once you master the art of vegetable-buying and stir frying basics, cooking stir fries will feel like something that is second nature to you.