• Dedicate a 'meal to MS' during May, like the red velvet layer cake from Beatrix. (Bec Hudson and Emily Weaving )Source: Bec Hudson and Emily Weaving
Take part in multiple sclerosis fundraiser Be My Guest which challenges you to cook with something red to support people living with multiple sclerosis.
Lee Tran Lam

28 May 2020 - 12:24 PM  UPDATED 28 May 2020 - 1:26 PM

Going for a run and jumping on your bike aren't just good for your heart rate – these activities can help raise money for MS, the charity that assists people living with multiple sclerosis.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed that. After all, social-distancing restrictions make the MS Melbourne Cycle + Half Marathon and similar events impossible.  

Erin Wicking, the community fundraising manager for MS, says, "There were five of them we had to cancel in March alone."

In just a few weeks, though, the organisation has come up with a lockdown-friendly alternative: Be My Guest.

"We're calling on households to dedicate a 'meal to MS' during May, with a focus on the weekend of 29th to 31st – to align with World MS Day [30 May]," she says.

Be My Guest asks participants to raise money by hosting a meal and connecting with people virtually – whether it's brunch with friends over Zoom or scones with grandparents who prefer an old-school phone call. Even FaceTiming about a recipe fail counts.

"By sharing a meal, you can help cultivate social connection and raise awareness for the social isolation that people living with multiple sclerosis all-too-often experience," she says.

Dedicate a 'meal to MS' during May.

The "I connect, we connect" theme for World MS Day fits well with the current trend of virtual dinner parties, online quarantine drinks and synchronised recipe-cooking over Houseparty and Zoom. This makes Be My Guest another good excuse to fire up your laptop and hit your contact book while setting the dinner table to raise awareness for multiple sclerosis and help fund the health, employment and mental health services that MS offers to people with the condition.   

"Multiple sclerosis affects more young people than any other chronic neurological condition – in fact, 1 in 3 Australians will be directly impacted through a diagnosed family member, friend or colleague," says Wicking.

Even though no case is identical, multiple sclerosis can adversely affect people's vision, bodily control, balance and memory.

"We've got so many services we can provide people so that if people get a diagnosis in their twenties or thirties, they’re not thinking, 'that's it, life as I know it is done!'" she says. These range from counselling, health advice and employment services. An MS nurse might offer advice on how to adjust to your medication or a support person might talk to your employer and obtain NDIS funding to help you set up a home office.

"By sharing a meal, you can help cultivate social connection and raise awareness for the social isolation that people living with multiple sclerosis all-too-often experience."

Charity MS makes it easy for anyone with multiple sclerosis to call up and reach someone through the MS Connect hotline. In fact, 20,000 calls are made a year. "Every single time a person reaches out, they've got a friendly and knowledgable voice," says Wicking. That's why Be My Guest's theme of connection is important, it's about reminding people with multiple sclerosis that they're not alone with their condition.

"In Australia, red is the colour we use to associate with MS," says Wicking. So she's encouraging people to cook red-coloured foods to celebrate Be My Guest.

If you need inspiration, try Michael Rantissi's shakshuka (see recipe below): he's made it over 120,000 times at his Sydney restaurant, Kepos Street Kitchen

"Shakshuka is a very forgiving thing. There is no right or wrong way," he says. "If you are allergic to capsicum or don't like coriander, you can take it out and add something else."

"It's a recipe you can put in the oven if you're too lazy to put on the stove," he says. "That's what I love about Middle Eastern cooking. Everyone does it differently because there isn't a dictionary for it." For more Be My Guest inspiration, you could also dust sumac over a white bean salad or try the plum and pistachio cake from his Hummus & Co. cookbook.

Pasta is a good way to see red – whether it's flavoured with well-cooked Arrabiata or Napoli sauce.

"Like anything else good, red sauce takes time!" says Mitch Orr from Sydney's Ciccia Bella restaurant. "Start with a generous amount of good-quality extra-virgin olive oil, a good handful of garlic and try and find San Marzano tomatoes. They really do make a difference." Then add a pinch of oregano or salt, and let it simmer to intensify the flavour.

"Don't be afraid to season creatively," says Orr, who has been adding Lao Gan Ma to the recipes he's sharing on Instagram.

"I like using an Asian chilli paste as they're ladled with some many secret goodies that take a sauce to another level."

Red sauce has been a lifeline for Hetty McKinnon during lockdown. The Community author has tipped tinned tomatoes into her mother's tomato and egg stir-fry, served dumplings with marinara sauce (“my kids thought this was the best meal of their lives!”) and created 'pizza beans' with canned diced tomatoes, dried oregano, olives and cheese.

"These may not be the type of recipes I would've made pre-quarantine, but this feeling of scarcity right now has sparked my imagination and inspired me to try new dishes without fear of failure or judgment."

For dessert, consider Natalie Paull's red velvet layer cake (from her Beatrix Bakes cookbook – or pick up a slice from her Melbourne bakery if you prefer it made for you). Just make sure your ingredients are at room temperature and to use the 'flour first' (or reverse creaming) approach for that ultra-fine 'velvet' crumb.

"With this method, you start the batter by beating the butter, sugar and flour then add the eggs, red colour and buttermilk," she says. "I know it sounds wacky, but it works!"

As someone who has witnessed many red-velvet disasters, she says you can't salvage a cake that's missing the required sugar ("just throw it in the bin"), but you can fix uneven layers by trimming them and letting "lashings of cream cheese buttercream hide any errors".

But don't even worry if it's not perfect. "A funny-looking cake baked from scratch is still really, really good," she says. "I'd definitely eat a slice."

If you prefer to skip the food dye, there are lots of ways to turn your desserts red. "Raspberries or strawberries can be bubbled into tangy, scarlet preserves and become the filling for sponge cakes or jammy tarts. Quinces, roasted for hours, evolve to ruby-hued," she says. "And cherries and rhubarb bring red to the pastry party, too!"

And even if we can't share slices or serves in person, connecting – whether via Instagram comments or FaceTime – can be powerful.

"Sharing a meal with others is always important in building community and fostering a sense of kinship, but during isolation, eating together eases loneliness," says McKinnon. "Be My Guest reminds everyone how powerfully food can connect us, even when we are apart."

"I truly hope the Be My Guest campaign will allow MS Australia to further grow their support services such as MS Connect and MS Peer Support to ensure no one faces multiple sclerosis alone," adds Paull.

"Unlocking the doors of isolation is a powerful gift."

To participate in Be My Guest, visit the website and join in the MS Live Lounge live stream event on Saturday 30 May.

If you need inspiration, try Michael Rantissi’s shakshuka.

Michael Rantissi's Shakshuka

Serves 4 

  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small brown onion, diced
  • 5 garlic cloves, diced
  • 2 large red capsicums, diced (optional)
  • 1 tbsp mild paprika
  • 1 tbsp ground coriander
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 kg ripe tomatoes, blanched, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1 handful coriander, leaves and stalks chopped
  • 8 eggs
  • Italian parsley sprigs, to garnish
  • Extra virgin olive oil, to drizzle 

1. Heat the olive oil in a large ovenproof frying pan over medium heat.
2. Add the onion and garlic and cook for 5 minutes. Add the chilli and capsicum and cook for 2 minutes. Add the paprika, ground coriander and cumin and cook for 2 minutes.
3. Add the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomato and cook for 20 minutes or until the sauce has reduced to the consistency of a tomato passata. Season with salt and stir through the fresh coriander.
4. Gently crack the eggs over the tomato sauce in the pan, spacing them out, and cover with a lid. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 3 minutes, or until the egg whites start to cook.
5. Remove the lid, increase the heat to medium and cook for a further 3 to 5 minutes, until the yolks are still runny but the whites are firm. Don't worry if the eggs are not fully cooked, as the heat of the sauce will continue to cook them. Remove from the heat.
6. Scatter over the parsley sprigs, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and serve.
NB: To blanch and peel the tomatoes, score a shallow cross in the base.  Put in a heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave for 30 seconds, then transfer to cold water and peel away the skin from the cross.

Recipe and shakshuka image from Falafel For Breakfast by Michael Rantissi and Kristy Frawley (Murdoch Books, $49.99)

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.

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