Healing plants inspire a line of spices

Almost 10 years ago, Austinite Ben Stevens fell ill after eating food contaminated with E. coli, and antibiotics weren't making him any better. "I crawled on a plane, and 22 hours later I was in Boston Bay, Jamaica, knocking on the door of a friend" who practices natural medicine, Stevens says. Within three days, his symptoms were gone, which he credits to the medicinal mixture of spices, seeds and herbs that his friend had given him.

Stevens says that experiencing that healing power of spices firsthand prompted him to start learning more about the healing properties of herbs and spices and to start mixing his own blends. "I came up with them by looking at the antioxidant properties present in a lot of spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice," he says. When the former traveling blues guitarist returned to the United States, he started drying herbs and spices at home, making batches of his seasoning blends and giving them to friends and family. After they kept returning to ask for more, he decided to start Wildly Natural One, a spice company that now sells two low-sodium blends (original and fiery) and two salt-free blends (spicy and a version of the original called select) at Thom's Market, Live Oak Market, Fresh Plus Market and at wildlynaturalone.com.

Stevens says that one of the best things about the seasoning blends is that they help novice cooks make better meals. "You can take food to another level without understanding the chemistry or science behind gourmet food," he says, noting that the blends are designed to taste differently when cooked or raw and when used on different proteins. "Spices unleash the potential of food and of cooks, too."

- Addie Broyles

Austin website helps with meal planning

Experts often recommend making a meal plan for what you're going to cook and eat in the coming weeks to save money and time and to help you eat healthier, but anyone who has tried to start with a blank piece of paper and come up with a week's worth of recipes and a corresponding grocery list knows how difficult it can be to get started.

Food on the Table is an Austin-based website (www.foodonthetable.com ) that aims to make meal planning easier by creating a categorized grocery list based on the meals a user selects from the recipe database. After picking which meals you want to make, the site generates a list that organizes the items based on where they are located in the store and compiles the amount you'll need of each item. (You can even have the list sent to your phone as a text message.)

The company lets users know what's on sale at the local grocery store and offers recipe ideas that integrate the on-sale items. You can also search only recipes that are quick to prepare, that are considered "healthy" or that are similar to dishes you already know your family likes. Also on the site, you'll find a blog and a forum to ask questions of other users and to get meal ideas.

The site offers a free basic service, which allows you to plan three meals and gives you access to 100 recipes, or you can pay $9.95 a month or $69.95 for a year for full access to the database and unlimited meal planning.

- A.B.

Kitchen Diva, Dr. Oz get cooking on Thursday

Austin's Angela Shelf Medearis, aka the Kitchen Diva, will make an appearance Thursday on "The Dr. Oz Show" at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on FOX 7. She'll be cooking these stuffed bell peppers as part of a segment on fighting exhaustion.

- A.B.

Energy-Boosting Stuffed Bell Peppers

8 red, yellow or orange bell peppers or a mixture of all (about 4 pounds)

2 Tbsp. canola or olive oil, divided

1 medium-size yellow onion, chopped

4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. ground black pepper

1 Tbsp. chili powder

1 Tbsp. ground cumin

16 oz. fresh Italian turkey sausage, removed from casing, or lean ground turkey

1 (16 oz.) jar chunky salsa, mild or hot

2 cups fresh baby spinach, rinsed and chopped, or 1 (10 oz.) package chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed to remove moisture

1 cup cooked quinoa (optional)

1 cup cooked brown rice

1 cup low-fat cheddar cheese

2 large avocados, peeled and pit removed, sliced

1/2 cup low-fat Greek yogurt

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut the peppers in half lengthwise, slicing from the stem to the bottoms, leaving the stems intact. Remove the white pithy ribs near stem and down length of inside. Remove the ribs and seeds and discard. Place the peppers in a shallow 13-inch-by-9-inch baking dish. Drizzle the peppers with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Cover the dish with foil, and bake the peppers 15 to 20 minutes, until they start to soften.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, garlic, salt, black pepper, chili powder and cumin; cook until the vegetables are softened, about 3 minutes. Add the sausage to the skillet. Cook, breaking it up with a slotted spoon or potato masher, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the salsa and the spinach and cook, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the cooked brown rice and quinoa (optional).

Carefully fill the pepper halves with the turkey mixture. Cover the dish with foil, and bake until the filling is hot and the peppers are tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove foil, and sprinkle the cheese over the top of the peppers. Return to oven; bake, uncovered, until cheese has melted, about 7 to 10 minutes. Top each pepper with a heaping tablespoon of yogurt. Place slices of the avocado on top of each pepper. Sprinkle with the basil. Serve immediately. Serves 8.

- Angela Shelf Medearis

Openings, closings and coming soon

• Open: Wholly Cow Burgers (formerly Flippin' Grazin'), a burger joint inside the Star Grill Food Mart at 3010 S. Lamar Blvd. Located inside a locally run convenience store, Flippin' Grazin' sells freshly made burgers, sliders, chili and cheesesteak sandwiches made from local, grass-fed beef. It also serves other sandwiches, salads, hand-cut onion rings and sweet potato and regular fries. 394-8156.

• Opening on Saturday: Sarah's Texas Pantry, a neighborhood grocery store at 101B East St., on the corner of U.S. 79 and East Street in Hutto, featuring Texas-made products, including pastas, condiments, sauces, fresh vegetables and local meats. "My focus from the beginning has been minimizing the carbon footprint of what's in the store," says owner Sarah Tober. After the store's grand opening celebration at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, the store will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. 758-9571, sarahstexaspantry.com .

• Open: Ugly Banjos, a trailer making home-style food at the East Side Drive In lot at 1001 E. Sixth St. Cousins Mike Hegar and Matthew Schaefer opened their 16-foot red trailer in December. Neither plays banjo and neither lays claim to "ugly," but Schaefer has worked at Siena and Spanish Oaks Golf Club and Hegar has worked as a waiter. Sandwiches with chips run from about $6.50 to $8.50. They said the most popular foods so far have been a meatloaf sandwich with cheese and bacon, a fried dish called Jimmy Crack Chicken and a sandwich called the Sloppy Banjo, made with ground beef, bacon, sausage and a fried tomato. Sides are $3 and include green chile mac and cheese, collard greens and fried pickles. For dessert? Fried Oreos with chocolate ganache and crushed Butterfingers. Hours: noon to 9:30 or 10 p.m., noon to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. 294-0911, www.uglybanjos.com .

• Closed: Kenobi, the sushi bar and Japanese grill at the Arboretum.

- A.B., Mike Sutter

Food and wine briefs

• From 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Manny's Uptown Kitchen (9503 Research Blvd.) will host the first in a series of Austin Restaurant Throwdowns, this one being a battle of Reuben sandwiches from four shops: Fricano's Deli, Garden Spot Cafe, Manny's and NeWorlDeli. The cost is $4 and includes voting rights and a taste of each sandwich. Proceeds benefit a charity chosen by the winner. The American-Statesman's Matthew Odam will be among the guest judges. 522-3477, www.austinrestaurantthrowdown.com . In Austin360 on Thursday, we'll feature our own pre-Throwdown Reuben showdown.

• Danika Boyle of Petite Peche & Co. is continuing her series of salon dinners at Church House Studios, 1161 Nickols Ave., with an Argentina-inspired dinner featuring empanadas and rib-eyes Saturday night. The four-course dinner costs $70 and is BYOB. Boyle is also hosting a two-part cooking class next month. The classes ($89 for both) will cover classic sauces for beef, fish and poultry (Feb. 8) and for pasta (Feb. 15). There are morning and evening sessions for both classes. www.petitepecheandco.com .

• From 7 to 11 a.m. on Friday and again on Jan. 28, all Central Texas McDonald's outlets will give customers a free regular serving of their new fruit-and-maple oatmeal.www.mcdonalds.com .

• Paggi House (200 Lee Barton Drive) will host a five-course dinner paired with ZU Vodka cocktails at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 26. $75. 473-3700, www.paggihouse.com .

• Faraday's Kitchen Store has two cooking classes coming up with Valentine's Day in mind. On Feb. 2, learn how to cook a European feast of French onion soup and beef Wellington with chef Katy Parker, and on Feb. 9, Andrew Brooks will show you how to make a romantic meal of pan-roasted duck and asparagus risotto. The BYOB classes start at 6 p.m. and cost $45 per person. http://faradayskitchenstore.com/ .

• For a cooking-themed getaway weekend, check out the Dixie Dude Ranch, which is hosting a weekend of classes at its ranch retreat outside Bandera Feb. 4-6. Executive chef Sidny Cook will be teaching hands-on classes during much of the day on Saturday based on recipes from the Dixie Dude cookbooks. There is a two-night minimum stay, and reservations are required. www.dixieduderanch.com/emails/february-cooking-class.htm .

- A.B., M.S.