Vegan Meatballs for Rachel Berry
‘Glee’ is far from perfect, but its earnest, complex protagonist is a maligned vegan who deserves these perfect tofu-based veggie meatballs
The third installment in DEDICATED — a column devoted to creating new recipes dedicated to famous people who are vegan or who seem to be considering a vegan lifestyle. Because we care!
If Glee had ended after its first season we might now think of it with the same critically-acclaimed wistfulness we apply to Freaks and Geeks or My So Called Life. Instead, the show bloomed hard and quickly rotted, the televisual equivalent of drinking a gallon of sugar syrup then running into a mirror maze.
And yet, I’ve found myself binge-watching it again. Rewatching Glee in 2019 can be fairly distressing on several levels — character development changed at whiplash speed; the in-universe logic went from darkly satirical to cartoonish; continuity was traded for contradiction; the increasing autotune often made it hard to tell who was actually singing. Several plot points have aged very badly, and some cast members’ own lives played out in horribly sad ways.
But just when I think I’m burnt out by Glee’s unearned sentiment, baseless moralising and irony posturing as progressiveness, a glimmer of brilliance will draw me back, like I’m a single-minded moth flying ruefully headfirst into a lightbulb. The electrifying power of Rachel Berry singing Don’t Rain on My Parade, knowing full well that both she and Lea Michele portraying her had studied Barbra Streisand down to the last mannerism. Or the soaring, joyful harmonising in River Deep, Mountain High, turned into a stunning duet by Mercedes Jones and Santana Lopez.
I’d already graduated university when Glee debuted, and the show’s often groundbreaking exploration of sexuality that captured hearts and probably kept Tumblr afloat was still a few years below the surface for me to claim relevance. No, my initial passion for Glee was born specifically from my adoration of musical theatre — perhaps embarrassing, but it is true. I was genuinely over the moon about established Broadway stars reaching mainstream audiences. A hit show, cracking jokes about Patti LuPone, guest starring my stage idol Idina Menzel, regularly covering show tunes? I could hardly process it!
Through it all there was Rachel Berry, a complex character ravenous for the warmth of the spotlight. For all the challenges the show threw at her, Lea Michele’s level of commitment to every scene was in a stratosphere higher than most of us can conceive of. I loved Rachel for her hard-nosed ambition, her Broadway reverence, her star power, and her unadulterated sincerity. I felt — and still feel — genuinely seen by her. And upon this rewatch, I found a new reason to love her, that had passed me by back in 2009: Rachel Berry is vegan! I suspect this detail was intended to amuse, indicative of her singularity and earnestness — but I was delighted.
The show’s commitment to this notion is illustrated in two scenes, which really show Glee’s contempt for consistency. In the first season, Rachel is pelted with eggs by a rival show choir fronted by her former boyfriend, who slowly and deliberately cracks the last egg on her head. Rachel is alone, mortified, her trust broken, taunted by her attackers about being vegan and having these eggs on both her conscience, and her face. It’s immensely affecting. By Season 4, an intolerably bland would-be love interest named Brody invites Rachel to help prepare a Thanksgiving turkey. After briefly demurring, she heads over and helps him spread butter on it with her hands, flirtatiously. It’s immensely stupid. Frankly, I’m not sure which scene makes me sadder, but I do know which one most frustrates me. I tell myself this is just terrible writing and Rachel Berry would surely have more strength of conviction than to indulge a repugnantly blank love interest in his meat-eating. I also tell myself that Rachel Berry is but a work of fiction, and I probably shouldn’t devote my hours to being flung about on the winds of her fickle proclivities.
Nevertheless, I decided to make a recipe dedicated to the vegan Rachel Berry from Glee’s early seasons, the Rachel who I love, who would rather stand up for what she believes in than go with the flow. In Season 2, Rachel’s long-term love interest Finn tries to cheer her with the promise of the vegan meatballs at local restaurant Breadstix — “they’re…they’re okay,” he says with mild yet gamely supportive enthusiasm. With this in mind I’ve made my own vegan meatballs for the maligned and long-suffering Rachel Berry, meatballs that are far more than okay, that absolutely have more flavour and depth than Season 4’s Brody — a delicious recipe truly worthy of her attention and standards.
These come together quickly in a food processor and taste amazing. The peanuts give a certain toasty savoury note, but you can swap them out for different nuts if you wish. Feel free to serve these with your own preferred pasta sauce, but if you’re pressed for time, I have a quick and dirty recipe that I’ve included below as well— using all tomato paste gives an immediate intensity of flavour, as though you’ve been simmering it for hours. The starch in the pasta water thickens it, the olive oil adds richness and the sugar gives balance — all within five minutes. This recipe makes around 12 meatballs depending on size, and they also make great party finger food served with a dipping sauce.
- 14 ounce block of firm tofu
- ½ cup peanuts
- One onion, peeled and roughly chopped
- Four garlic cloves, peeled
- One cup panko breadcrumbs
- One tablespoon soy sauce
- One teaspoon balsamic vinegar
- ¼ cup fresh basil leaves
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ¼ of a beef-flavoured vegetarian bouillon cube, or one teaspoon yeast spread (e.g. Marmite)*
- Vegetable oil, for frying
*If you don’t have either of these ingredients, just add an extra pinch of salt.
- Wrap the tofu in a couple sheets of kitchen paper towel. Sit something heavy on it for a few minutes, like a cast-iron saucepan, to help remove some of the moisture.
- Place the peanuts, onions and garlic cloves in a food processor and blend until the peanuts are chopped small but still retaining some texture. Add the pressed tofu and the remaining ingredients (except the vegetable oil) and blend thoroughly into a thick paste.
- Roll tablespoons of the mixture into ball shapes using your hands. Heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a pan over a high heat and fry them on all sides until very well-browned. Smaller meatballs work best because it allows the insides to cook without burning the outsides.
- Serve over spaghetti with your favourite tomato sauce, or feel free to use mine.
Very Quick Pasta Sauce
- ½ cup tomato paste
- ½ cup pasta cooking water
- Two cloves garlic, crushed
- One tablespoon olive oil
- A pinch of sugar
- Herbs of your choice, e.g. chopped basil
- Salt, to taste
Bring the ingredients to the boil in a small saucepan and then simmer for about five minutes or until thick. Taste to see if it needs more of anything. Add the meatballs and simmer them for a couple of minutes if you’re using it with the above recipe, then spoon over cooked pasta.
If you, like me, have become mired in a Glee rewatch, I suggest finding a friend in a similar position to frantically message about the show’s incongruities, because it’s probably not healthy to keep all the inevitable discontent bottled up. For this, I have my dear friend Charlotte to yell with, who also introduced me to the Gleewind podcast. I thoroughly recommend compounding your obsession by listening to Gleewind, where hosts Jorge and Michael recap each episode. Their acidic wit, broad knowledge, thoughtful analysis and occasional adulation is wonderful — if these are the vegan meatballs that Rachel Berry deserves, then Gleewind is truly the podcast she deserves.