The best way to a person’s heart is through their stomach.

I believe it now after seeing how much food can impact a relationship.

After 50-plus years of marriage, Jim and Barbara Jean Barta know that, too. 

The way they stare at each other is, well, “relationship goals.” Whether she’s in her namesake restaurant on St. Simons Island or in her home, Barbara Jean is always cooking up something delicious.

The love that these two share for each other spills over into her cooking. Since 2013, the two have kept track of the things Barbara Jean cooks at home and whether or not they’ll try it again.

She knows what Jim likes, and rarely do they throw out a recipe after trying. If they don’t like something, Jim says she often tweaks it until it’s to their liking. 

“It’s my creative outlet,” Barbara Jean says. “I love putting personal touches on things.”

They’re self-proclaimed “food nuts” and have been since before getting married. Food is part of their life and what makes them happy. 

So the saying is true; the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach. 

They share their love every year by visiting L’Auberge Chez Francois, a French restaurant in Great Falls, Virginia, for their anniversary. 

“It is run by an old family, the Haeringer family. They may have something new, but the core items that have been there forever don’t change, and they’re meticulous about that,” Jim says.

“You want to make sure it tastes the same way it did the last time because that’s why you came back.”

They apply that same concept at their restaurant on the island. A dish always tastes as good as it did the first time. 

Taking the time to make sure it’s right lets the customers know how much they care about what they serve. It’s why Barbara Jean’s is a St. Simons staple.

This year has given the community a ton of new normals, which will likely include the upcoming holiday season, and Barbara Jean’s has it covered.

Casseroles are always an easy option, and this Kentucky Hot Brown Casserole is like tasting a whole Thanksgiving meal in each bite, and I mean, every single one.

I wanted more and likely could have eaten the entire pan of it. 

Like Barbara Jean usually does with so many of her masterpieces, she adds her special touch to it. 

“I put in the sharp white cheddar,” Barbara Jean says.

“I made more sauce for the top and added tomatoes to the sauce — bacon on the inside and top. Bacon is good.”

This recipe is foolproof, and any level of chef can make it. It’s also a great way to use any extra turkey you have around the house. This recipe is one of the likely thousands that Jim and Barbara Jean have tried, and yet it feels like they picked it out because they knew it would share the love.

Kentucky Hot Brown Casserole:

Ingredients:

1 lb chopped cooked bacon

(drippings reserved)

8 slices Texas toast, cubed

1/2 cup melted butter

1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

1 1/2 tsp black pepper

6 eggs

1 qt whole milk

1/2 tsp dry mustard

3/4 cup parmesan cheese

4 Tbsp butter

4 Tbsp flour 

1 cup diced tomato

1 cup sharp white cheddar 

2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley

2 lbs turkey chopped or shredded

Directions 

Preheat oven to 375. Toss the cubed bread, melted butter, 1 tsp salt and 1 tsp black pepper together. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes or until toasted. 

Whisk together the eggs, 2 cups of milk and mustard in a large bowl. Add 1/4 cup parmesan cheese, 3 Tbsp bacon drippings, and 3/4 of the cooked bacon. Stir together and fold in the toasted bread. Add the turkey and pour into a prepared 9x13 pan. Bake for 45 minutes.

While the casserole is baking, make the tomato cream sauce. Heat the 4 Tbsp butter in a small saucepan and whisk the flour into the butter. Add 1/2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper. Pour in the remaining 2 cups of milk. Stir until it comes to a gentle boil. Remove from heat and whisk in the remaining parmesan and white cheddar. Add the diced tomato and parsley. Pour over the baked casserole. Top with remaining bacon and serve.