This Ocala art expert serves her beloved Greek cuisine in handcrafted ceramics.
Leslie Hammond, Ph.D., an archaeologist, accredited senior art appraiser and the former curator at the Appleton Museum of Art, loves Ocala but she also has strong connections to Greece and considers that ancient sun-kissed land to be her second home.
In her travels to Greece, Cyprus and Egypt, she has participated in archaeological explorations and immersed herself in the culture and traditions of these splendid regions. She also has brought back to Ocala some amazing artworks and a knack for preparing tasty and healthy dishes such as Fasolakia, a traditional Greek vegetarian dish bursting with fresh flavors and vibrant colors. It is prepared using a basic cooking technique called “giaxni,” which translates into “steamy.” This popular technique of steaming in a large pan or pot is used in authentic Greek cooking to prepare anything from fish, meat or vegetables. Fasolakia combines green beans, onions, tomatoes and olive oil, which are simmered together until all the fl avors mingle into a delectable vegetable stew. Hammond serves it with Tzatziki, a creamy and savory yogurt and cucumber dip.
“The dishes are based out of my love for and lots of experience traveling to Greece,” she offers. “These are some of my favorite dishes and I thought they would be appropriate with Lent coming up. It’s typical Lenten food.”
She explains that a meal in Greece normally would begin with “small plates” for sharing, followed by a main course.
“It’s kind of like tapas. Basically, everybody shares food when they get to the Greek table,” she explains. “The Tzatziki is a dip that you serve with some great bread. You can also use the bread to sop up the sauce in the green bean dish.”
Hammond, who grows her own herbs for cooking, such as the mint, oregano, basil and dill, all of which are commonly used in Greek cuisine, is a vegetarian but says that any lamb dish, roasted chicken or fish would be a main course offering to complement these two time-honored small plates.
And, in her home, the ceramic plates themselves have a history.
“When I was doing my dissertation on Greek ceramics, I thought the best way to understand how they made ceramics was to take a class, so now I have this thing about really looking at pottery,” she shares, sweeping her arm across a group of intricately-painted pieces in her kitchen. “I made a couple, a good friend made these two out of Italian terra cotta, that antique is from Israel. I pick them up when I’m traveling but also from FAFO and other places. It’s whatever catches my eye.”
Hammond, who came to Ocala in 2002, said she is keenly interested in how artifacts “illuminate our understanding of past cultures, whether it came out of the ground and dates to the prehistoric period or it’s a painting that was created two months ago. It all tells a story.”
During her most recent archaeological fi eld work in Greece, her team discovered a Minoan artifact from the island of Crete on the mainland.
“The site had a prehistoric element to it that we didn’t expect at all,” she shares. “Those kinds of things really make it exciting and fun.”
Hammond believes that art can be culturally and economically important to the community and calls the art scene in Ocala “amazing” and says she has witnessed its “transformation” over the years.
“Art is something that is vibrant and the more you have these things, the more engaged your community is,” she notes. “The Marion Cultural Alliance has been around a long time, but they have ratcheted things up recently and now there’s Magnolia Art Exchange; just all kinds of different organizations communicating with one another and collaborating—that makes a big difference.”
And although her travels oft en take her to exotic destinations, she says that the close-knit creative community here in Ocala is what makes her feel right at home.
1 1/2 pounds French green beans
1 pound yellow potatoes chopped or 3/4 to 1 pound baby potatoes chopped in half
1 28 ounce can whole tomatoes or alternatively, both 1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes and 1 14.5 ounce can of fi re roasted tomatoes
12 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 cup water
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 teaspoons Greek oregano
1 teaspoon cumin
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup fresh parsley
Fresh squeezed lemon juice
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. › Heat olive oil (about 3 to 4 tablespoons) in a Dutch oven over medium heat. › Add onions and cook until soft, add garlic, cumin and oregano and cook about 5 minutes. › Add all tomatoes and paste, bay leaf and water; stir to combine. › Mix in green beans and potatoes as well as salt and pepper. › Increase heat to reach a simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes. › Stir well, cover and place in oven for about 35 to 40 minutes, or until sauce thickens (check and stir after about 15 to 20 minutes). › Serve hot or at room temperature and garnish with parsley, feta cheese, a squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.