The other night, I had some friends round for dinner. I cooked them pan-fried ostrich fillets on a bed of creamy celeriac mash, accompanied by a sauce made from trompette mushrooms and Chinese black vinegar. On to the plates (which I'd preheated), I stacked the ingredients in neat piles, topping each one with a sprinkling of blue Congo potato crisps. My guests were impressed that I'd gone to so much trouble, particularly on a week night. "This must have taken you ages," they said. "How did you manage?"
As it happened, the meal had taken me less than 20 minutes to prepare, and hadn't tested my culinary abilities one bit. This isn't because I'm the sort of person who habitually whips up extravagant meals in minutes, but because that day, for the first time, I had patronised a company called Leaping Salmon. Leaping Salmon specialises in an upmarket version of the ready meal, known as the "gourmet meal kit". You can pick these up from kiosks at various London railway stations, or have them delivered directly to your home (either by logging on to www.leapingsalmon.com or by calling 0870 701 9100).
The company, one suspects, is seeking a specific type of customer: the cash-rich (and, in most cases, London-based) urban professional. Its meal kits reflect the outlook and tastes of this demographic; they are packaged in voguish silver carrier bags, and include such crazy gimmicks as fortune-telling plastic fish. All the ingredients come cleaned, chopped and - where necessary - part-cooked, leaving the harried professional with little to do, after a busy day at the office, other than a spot of last-minute heating and assembling.
Leaping Salmon's prices reflect the spending capacities of its target audience: my ostrich steaks cost just under £9.50 each, but you can find yourself paying as much as £25 per person for the more luxurious options. Perhaps feeling the need to justify such high prices, the company offers various reasons on its website why its products are a good thing. "It's fun having your own sous-chef once in a while, isn't it?" it says. Indeed, this is part of the appeal: there is something inherently satisfying about feeling that someone else has done all the hard work.
But the real attraction of the kits is that they offer you the opportunity to take credit far in excess of anything your achievements deserve. Cooking a Leaping Salmon meal requires almost no skill whatsoever; all the important decisions have been taken for you, and the instructions are so meticulous that nothing can conceivably go wrong. Yet the result is so impressive that you - and, equally importantly, your friends - come away believing that you possess hitherto undiscovered reserves of culinary talent. For the especially shameless, there is even the chance to pass the entire meal off as your own.
Leaping Salmon itself does everything it can to promote this brand of gastronomic delusion. As the slogan on its carrier bags puts it, "Prepare to be amazing". And this is what troubles me most about the concept. It seems typical of a culture whose tendency is to hype the unremarkable, and encourage people to believe that they are more talented than they actually are. Besides, part of the pleasure of cooking stems from not knowing what the final outcome will be. Having cooked something delicious, the satisfaction you feel is always heightened by the knowledge that, had you done things just a little differently, it could all have gone disastrously wrong.
That said, it is hard to criticise Leaping Salmon's products on the grounds of taste. Compared with most ready meals, they are excellent. Our ostrich fillets, for example, were tender and gamey, and the celeriac mash impressively rich. The only problem was the blue potato crisps which, besides being slightly soggy, were so exotic that my friends refused to believe I'd cooked them myself.
On second thoughts, this might be the biggest problem with Leaping Salmon's meal kits: they are simply too sophisticated to pass off as your own.
Bee Wilson is away