As a child, my favourite book was the Innovations catalogue. It was stuffed with gadgets promising to transform domestic tasks. My mum and I bought loads from the kitchen section: one-twist pineapple borers, corn de-kernelers, self-heating butter knives; each an evolutionary step on the road to robot butlers and jet packs. They stayed with me, those ingenious toys. Not literally – at some point we threw them out because they were cheap cack, and the catalogue folded in 2003.
But nowadays, we’re all gadget freaks. Has kitchenware kept pace? To kick off a new column, I’m attempting to create a three-course meal using today’s crop of kitchen aids. Eight diners are on their way to my house – bizarrely, all women, drawn by my easy looks and charm, or maybe the invite I sent with the words “chocolate fountain” in the heading. We don’t have to pin it down.
Starter: sushi rolls
The Sushezi (£19.99, Firebox.com) is a tubular barrel with a plunger, also known as the Sushi Bazooka, and promises perfectly formed maki rolls every time (“the bazooka doesn’t actually fire sushis”, the blurb cautions). It is straightforward to use. I cook and vinegar some sushi rice, and pack the sticky grains into the open tube with sliced red pepper, avocado and smoked salmon. Closing the tube compresses the mixture. Uncapping the bazooka, I point it at a sheet of nori seaweed and push on the plunging rod. Who doesn’t want food that has seen the business end of a plunging rod? Quite possibly my visitors, who arrive in time to see a sticky, floppy log being smoothly ejected on to the nori, which I roll up and slice into rounds.
Any queasiness quickly passes – the maki rolls are delicious, and undeniably classy, served with pickled ginger, wasabi and soy. I can’t help feeling something has been lost, however. A bamboo rolling mat, though tricky to master, carries the essence of sushi – clean, elegant. The Sushezi is vaguely veterinary in appearance, reminiscent of apparatus used to extract bull semen. Still, I would buy a Sushezi. Like a trusty sex toy, it works brilliantly, but you wouldn’t want guests seeing you use it.
Main course: courgetti spaghetti
I’m looking at the kitchen gadget de nos jours, the spiraliser. Spiralisers create fruit spirals and vegetable ribbons and sound like a weapon from Minority Report. I’m using the Spirali from Lurch (about £25, Amazon). It is cream and lime plastic, and resembles a children’s toy designed by Franz Kafka – a Fisher Price guillotine. “Tonight’s main will be a healthy courgette spaghetti – courgetti, if you will,” I announce, quite pleased with myself. It doesn’t go down as well as I hoped. “Gwyneth Paltrow would love this,” says Ellie. “But she also thinks you should steam your vagina, and I’m not doing that.”
I pin a courgette to the Spirali’s spiked disc, using a hand crank to rotate and drive it through a shaped blade. Ribbons of green-edged flesh spool from the blade like time-lapse footage of hair growing. It is extremely satisfying. I am impressed by how spaghetti-like and firm the result is, though there is waste – each courgette leaves a large, bolt-shaped stump behind.
I toss batches of courgetti into a hot, lightly oiled pan and knock up a simple tomato sauce with onion and garlic. I use the Garlic Peeler from Koopeh Designs (£1.99), a hollow silicone bulb that is meant to shuck off garlic skin in a few rubs. It looks like a jellyfish, but proves less useful. After two bumpy minutes of rolling, my clove is rumpled but fully dressed. I peel it with my fingers, which takes eight seconds; I could get that down if I was really trying.
More successful, though no less ugly, is the Alligator Onion Cutter (£20.99, lazyboneuk.com). It is a hinged jaw that pushes onion segments through a razor-sharp grid as it closes, retaining the diced flesh in a detachable container above. It looks like a game of vegetable-based Boggle, and occasionally requires ungainly, violent action: my guests look over as I slam my bodyweight on to it a few times, but it works. Best of all, it makes the £23 John Lewis onion goggles I’m wearing utterly redundant, as well as stupid-looking. The hungry crowd have started heckling – who heckles at a dinner party? – so I finish the sauce and stir it through.
Handling the courgetti is trickier. Each vegetable has produced one long, unbroken strand. “It’s like eating a wig,” complains Danica, spooning loops of it into her mouth and discovering it has no end. I try some. It is tasty and healthy, and I’ve done very well indeed. It’s not easy to feed a room on four courgettes; I’m not Jesus. At £25, this is an acceptable payout for the foodie kudos it lends me.
“Is it time for the chocola-” begins Eleanor. “YES, IT’S TIME FOR THE CHOCOLATE FOUNTAIN!” I reply.
Dessert: chocolate fountain
There is something ineffably 70s about a chocolate fountain, though they have only been around since the 90s. They call to mind the decadence of the Olympic Village on the last night of a vintage Games, gymnasts sloshing themselves in brown waves like Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita. The home versions don’t quite match my mental image – I’m using a Gourmet Gadgetry model (£29.99, Lakeland), which stands about 30cm tall. You couldn’t fit a gymnast in it. Still, it’s pretty. I set it on a table and switch it on. I pick up a special feedbag of chocolate chips, which weighs a kilogram and looks like something you’d use to kill a horse. “Have you heard of the Bristol stool chart?” asks Kate, a doctor. “No,” I say, in a way I hope implies: “I don’t want to.” “It’s a chart measuring the solidity of human faeces,” she continues. “Right now, this stuff is type one or two. We’re about to go to a type seven.”
With my dessert course being compared to shit – literal shit – my expectations aren’t high. I pour in the chips and turn on the motor. A brown river begins to spiral up from the fountain’s base, through a central column and out the top, cascading in smooth sheets, like living art. It’s beautiful. My visitors descend on it like wildebeest at a watering hole. They stick strawberries, brioche, bits of their face into it. There are brown globs on people’s clothes, in their hair, everywhere. We don’t slow down, even when the cocoa flow is broken up with suspicious chunks. “I may have lost some banana in there,” admits Mad.
In 10 minutes, we’ve made our way through enough chocolate for 20 people. The fountain, stripped of its silky sheet, is a sorry sight. Though an impressive, Dionysian climax to the meal, the thought of the aftermath – the equipment must be cleaned before the chocolate solidifies – is already depressing me. Regrets seep in among the group, too. “My poor heart,” laments Ellie, who is not talking about her love life. “No one gives any thought to infection control in a fondue,” muses Kate, attempting to calculate how many times over we have now traded bacteria. “I’d love to swab that,” she concludes, gesturing at the spent fountain. I’d buy a chocolate fountain again, but I’d give it as a gift, so some other idiot has to clean it.
The experiment is over. Ideally, dinner parties don’t end with someone saying: “I’d love to swab that,” but I’m still pleased with the results. The food has been good and the gadgets have been time-saving. Of course, most of them are as ugly as hell, and cleaning their component parts may take the exact amount of time they have just saved me. There are many factors to consider when judging a kitchen gadget, I realise. From next week, I’ll be putting more of them through their paces. If anyone has any washing-up magicians to fill in before the robot butler arrives, do let me know.