The standard method
In a heavy saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Add the salt. Stirring constantly with a stainless steel whisk, pour the cornmeal into the water in a steady stream. Reduce heat to a slow simmer and keep stirring with the whisk until it starts to boil, then cover and continue to cook, stirring every 2-3 minutes with a wooden spoon, always in the same clockwise direction.
The time necessary for the porridge to be correctly cooked and thus well-digestible is 45 minutes. In case the porridge gets too thick, add some hot water or skimmed milk, to obtain a more creamy porridge. Check frequently if more salt is needed.
For eating polenta hot from the pan, put a tablespoon of water in a deep ceramic dish and scrape the polenta into it. Serve it with a big wooden spoon. To eat it roasted, scrape the polenta into a non-stick pan or ceramic dish (or some container which will release it when it cools). Cool completely. The polenta will be like a loaf. To serve it, cut into slices, heat in the oven or grill it and serve with whatever topping you desire. Even the polenta leftovers from serving it as a hot side dish are usable, cut in slices and grilled.
The quickie method
Boil the water on the stove. Pour it into a large microwave-safe bowl and add the salt. Stirring constantly, pour the cornmeal into the water in a steady stream. Cook the polenta in a microwave oven on medium power for (2–5 minutes, longer for a larger serving). Remove from the microwave and stir vigorously. It will not cook evenly and this stirring helps prevent lumps.
Repeat this process until the polenta is thick, then proceed as above.
The really quickie method
Boil the water, toss in the salt and cornmeal and microwave on medium power for 5–8 minutes (depending on quantity). Remove from microwave and stir like crazy to smash all of the lumps. Repeat if you need to thicken it some more, stir, and blend with the few remaining lumps.
Just before you take the polenta off the heat (i.e., when it's almost done), stir in any of the following.
- Two tablespoons of olive oil or butter and about half a cup of cheese.
- Two tablespoons of olive oil, 2-3 cloves of minced garlic, and a quarter cup of chopped sun dried tomatoes. (If packed in oil, drain the tomatoes first.)
- Half a cup of canned sweet corn kernels and a quarter cup of sliced green Spanish olives.
- One minced jalapeño chili, seeds removed, and half a cup of cheddar cheese.
- Two tablespoons of butter and about half a cup of crumbled gorgonzola cheese. Top with carmelized onions.
Polenta is also delicious topped with your favorite tomato sauce or with an assortment of grilled vegetables. Chilled, firm polenta may be served cut into triangles alongside chili or other hearty stews. Leftover polenta may be cut into strips or triangles, coated in seasoned bread crumbs and grated Parmesan cheese, and fried in olive oil. Like pasta, the possibilities for this versatile dish are virtually endless, so feel free to experiment with additions and toppings.