A visit to New Orleans inspires Mark Hix to cook up a feast of Louisiana classics. Photographs by Jason Lowe

I've just returned from a visit to New Orleans where I was a guest of the McIllhenny family, which owns the Tabasco factory. I haven't visited the area since my trip there around four years ago, before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit; so I was witnessing a city that was very much trying to get back on track.

As well as a tour round the Tabasco factory on Avery Island, 140 miles west of New Orleans, I was also taking part in a trip organised by the IACP (the International Association of Culinary Professionals). Our group included Tom Parker Bowles, Charles Campion, Matthew Fort, Sheila Dillon, Raymond Blanc and Rosemary Barron of Oxford Brookes University – a right bunch of culinary pros. We did our best for our country in terms of sampling the local cuisine, but sadly, enjoyed few memorable meals.

One of the highlights was a crayfish, shrimp and crab broil at Trapper's Camp in alligator country. With Cajun music to accompany our meal, we enjoyed a long, decadent lunch. We didn't experience anything as good as that until we met Donald Link, who was speaking with Raymond, Charles and myself on the subject of buying locally. Donald has two fine restaurants in New Orleans: Herbsaint and Cochon. At the latter we feasted on fried pigs' ears with spicy honey mustard, fried rabbit livers with pepper jelly toast and grilled beets with pickled pork tongue. Fergus Henderson, my neighbour in Smithfield, would have had a field day! That same evening we dined at GW Fins on baby conch (whelks) baked on sea salt.

Most New Orleans menus are laden with dishes containing heavy roux-based sauces and there's lots of deep-fat frying going on. Even our cast-iron stomachs found it all a bit much to deal with!

Baked whelks

Serves 4

I made something very similar to this in my British Regional Food cookbook and hey presto! – it turns up in New Orleans in a local version using the "mash" from the Tabasco process in a garlic butter. This by-product is made from the mashed-up peppers that are left when the Tabasco is strained off and it is then sold locally in packets. Tom Parker Bowles did buy a couple of kilos, but on the way to the airport he realised he had left it in the fridge in the Windsor Court Hotel – he'll just have to go back next year. For a similar "mash", chop red chillies into butter.

2kg small- to medium-sized live whelks
300g sea salt (Sel de Guérande or Maldon)
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
12 white peppercorns
1tsp fennel seeds
A few sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
Half a lemon
1 glass of white wine

To serve

200g sea salt
6-8 pieces of garlic shoots or chopped wild garlic leaves or garlic chives trimmed and finely chopped
2 chillies finely chopped
150g butter, softened
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Juice of half a lemon

Wash the whelks in water, then drain them and put them into a bowl with 300g of the sea salt. Leave for 2 hours, then wash them under a steady trickle of running water for 1 hour, giving them a good stir every so often.

Put them into a pan with the rest of the cooking ingredients, cover them with water and add a tablespoon of salt, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 45 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to cool in the liquid for about an hour or so. When the whelks are cool enough to handle, remove them from the shell with a small skewer or lobster pick, and remove and discard the small, disc-like piece of shell attached to the body, and the dark grey sac. Rinse and dry the shells on some kitchen paper. Chop each piece of meat into four pieces and put them into a bowl with the garlic shoots, butter and lemon juice and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Mix well and push the mixture back into the shells.

Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Scatter the salt about 1cm deep, on to one large or individual ovenproof serving dishes – Le Creuset work well – and embed the shells into the salt (you may need more salt, depending on the size of your dishes) so that they don't fall over during cooking and most of the butter stays in the shells. Bake for 20 minutes and serve immediately with crusty bread.

Duck hash

Serves 4

Donald Link served this to us after the crawfish bisque (see below) at breakfast in Herbsaint. You can find duck legs quite easily these days in butchers and supermarkets; if not, you could just use a whole duck instead chopped into four, or buy 2 ducks and remove the legs and save the breasts for another meal.

2 large or 4 small duck legs
250-300g goose or duck fat
6 cloves of garlic, halved
1 bay leaf
A few sprigs of thyme
10 black peppercorns
2 medium onions, peeled and roughly diced
350g new potatoes, peeled, cooked and cut into rough 1cm chunks or quartered if they are small
Salt and pepper
1tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2tbsp breadcrumbs
4 free-range duck eggs

Pre-heat the oven to 175C/gas mark 4. Put the duck legs in a tight fitting pan with the duck fat, garlic, bay leaf, thyme and peppercorns. Add a teaspoon of sea salt, cover with a lid or foil and cook in the oven for about an hour and a half or until the meat is soft and coming away from the bone. Leave the fat to cool a little and strain into a container or preserving jar and store in the fridge to use for roasting potatoes.

Take a spoonful or so of the duck fat and fry the onions in a covered, thick-bottomed pan for 5-6 minutes until they are soft, stirring occasionally. Then remove the lid and turn up the heat to give them a little colour. Put them into a mixing bowl.

Heat some more duck fat in a frying pan (cast-iron, preferably) until it is very hot and cook the potatoes a few at a time on a high heat until they are lightly coloured, then add them to the onions. Remove the meat from the duck legs and cut into chunks with the skin about the same size as the potatoes. Mix well and season; add Worcestershire sauce to taste.

Divide the mixture and mould into four flat, roughly 8cm cakes with the help of a stainless steel mould or just by hand with a palette knife, then refrigerate for a couple of hours or overnight.

Press the breadcrumbs into the cakes then heat some oil in preferably a non-stick frying pan and cook for about 3-4 minutes on each side until they are golden and crisp. Keep them warm in the oven once they are cooked.

When all the hashes are cooked, fry four duck eggs, transfer the hashes to warm plates and slide a fried egg on to each hash.

Crayfish bisque Louisiana-style

Serves 6-8

Bisque refers to a shellfish soup with cream, and the name is thought to have come from the Spanish Biscay region. With this type of soup, the flavour really comes from the shells, and after I've cooked shellfish at home I always keep the shells in the freezer for this purpose. In Louisiana, where rice is commonly grown, bisques are often thickened with rice instead of a heavier roux. This is the soup that Donald Link served us for breakfast, of all meals, after a visit to his other restaurant Herbsaint.

1kg freshly cooked crayfish, tail meat reserved and the shells chopped
1tbsp vegetable or olive oil
1 small onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 small leek, trimmed and roughly chopped
2 sticks of celery, roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1/2tsp fennel seeds
A pinch of saffron
A few sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
2tbsp tomato purée
80g long grain or Carolina rice
1 glass of white wine
1.5 litres fish stock, or a couple of good fish-stock cubes dissolved in 1.5 litres of hot water
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
A few dashes of Tabasco (optional)

Heat the vegetable oil in a large heavy-based saucepan and fry the crayfish shells and vegetables over a high heat for about 5 minutes, stirring every so often until they begin to colour.

Add the garlic, fennel seeds, saffron, thyme and bay leaf, and continue cooking for another 5 minutes or so. Add the tomato purée and rice; stir well, then add the white wine and fish stock, bring to the boil, season and add a few drops of Tabasco and simmer for 1 hour, skimming and stirring every so often.

Blend the soup, shells and all, in a liquidiser or strong food processor until smooth, then strain through a fine-meshed sieve, pushing the mix through with the back of a spoon or ladle.

Return to a clean pan, season with a little salt and pepper if necessary, and bring to the boil. To serve, add the tail meat and a little cream if you wish.

Bread pudding

4-6 servings

I've been a big fan of bread pudding since I was a kid. It was commonly found in local bakers and in my gran's larder. We tasted a couple of very good versions in New Orleans, one at a famous restaurant called Mother's and the other at a new favourite of mine, G W Fins.

Fins' version had both dark and white chocolate in it and both versions were a cross between a bread and butter pudding and our stodgier bread pudding. Tasting these variations has inspired me to update my old version and lighten it up a bit and it may well feature on the menu at my new restaurant, Hix Oyster and Chop House, very soon.

300ml full cream Jersey milk
100ml Jersey or double cream
200g unrefined caster sugar
Half a vanilla pod
300g white bread (leftover or fresh), crusts removed and broken into small pieces
4 eggs, beaten
150g good quality dark chocolate, in small chunks

Put the milk, cream and sugar into a saucepan, split the vanilla pod and scrape the seeds into the milk with the pods as well, bring to the boil, remove from the heat and leave to cool. Whisk the eggs into the milk mixture then put the bread into a bowl; pour the milk mixture over. Cover and leave in the fridge overnight.

Pre-heat the oven to 175C/gas mark 4.

Have a baking tray or oven-proof dish ready, large enough to hold the bread and milk mixture about 5cm deep and a larger tray to use as a bain-marie. Stir the mix; transfer to the oven tray and push the nuggets of chocolate randomly into the mixture. Place the tray into a larger dish and pour in hot water. Bake for about 40 minutes or until the top is coloured. Serve warm with ice cream or clotted cream.