Fennel sparks controversy. You either love its intense anise flavors—or hate them. To those in the latter camp, I like to ask: Have you tried fennel roasted? While heat of any kind mellows this bulbous vegetable’s licorice notes and turns its fibrous texture luxuriously creamy, roasting coaxes out hidden flavors, recalibrating how it tastes. The result: a nutty, savory‑sweet vegetable that’s the perfect accompaniment to almost any dish.
Fennel’s multilayered structure presents challenges, and I began my recipe development by figuring out how to prep the vegetable (which, incidentally, comes from a different variety of the fennel plant than the one that produces fennel seeds). Cutting the bulb crosswise into thick rounds caused the layers to fall apart into random-size pieces. Lengthwise slices were better, but if they were too thin, they dried out in the oven, which emphasized the fennel’s stringiness. The best method was slicing the bulb into wedges, which provided flat surfaces for browning and tidy pieces attached at the core that stayed intact.
I also found that simply coating the pieces with oil and roasting them in a hot oven charred their exteriors before the insides turned creamy. The solution: I drizzled the wedges with water and covered them with foil so that they steamed for the first 20 minutes of cooking. After that I removed the foil, and in 10 minutes the fennel turned golden brown and deliciously caramelized.
There was another benefit to adding water. When I dissolved salt in the water first, it was a great way to get seasoning into the pieces’ interiors. I had one more tweak: Since the wedges in the middle of the baking sheet didn’t get as browned, I arranged the pieces on the long sides of the sheet, where they’d all get equal exposure to the heat.
Sprinkling these beautifully golden-brown wedges with the chopped fennel fronds made a satisfying side dish, but since their mild anise notes have such an affinity for other flavors, I created some optional toppings: a floral vinaigrette made with white wine vinegar and honey as well as orange juice (and its zest); briny oil-cured olives quickly crisped in the microwave; crunchy bread crumbs mixed with umami‑rich Parmesan and a touch of red pepper; and cashews toasted with a slew of bold-flavored spices including cumin, mustard seeds, and nigella seeds.