In a heavy stainless-steel 3-quart saucepan, bring 4 cups water to a boil. Add the salt and stir with a wooden spoon to dissolve.
When the salted water is boiling, gradually add the cornmeal in a thin, steady stream, whisking constantly. This is important; if you pour in the cornmeal too quickly, lumps may form. When all the cornmeal has been added, lower the heat to maintain a slow simmer.
Cook, whisking occasionally to prevent sticking, and scraping the inside of the pot with a rubber spatula to incorporate any cornmeal that does stick. The polenta will bubble and spurt a bit.
If the polenta gets too thick and starts to stick to the bottom of the pot, add a little warm water. The polenta is done when it’s very thick and creamy, with a texture that’s slightly rough but not gritty, 20 to 25 minutes, depending on the cornmeal. Taste a bit to check the texture. If it’s still gritty, add a little more water and continue cooking until the texture has softened. Stir in the butter, if using, and add more salt to taste. Serve immediately.
Mascarpone & Parmigiano Polenta: Omit butter, and gently whisk in 1/2 cup mascarpone in its place. Turn off the heat and stir in 1/2 cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Thin the polenta with up to 1/2 cup water, if you like; add salt to taste. Scoop the polenta into a serving bowl, sprinkle with another 1 Tbs. of Parmigiano, and serve.
Polenta Rosa: Put 1 cup canned diced tomatoes in a fine sieve, set it over a bowl, and shake it to drain as much liquid as possible. Put the tomato liquid in a measuring cup; add water to get 4 cups total liquid. Pour the liquid into a heavy stainless-steel 3-quart saucepan, and proceed with the basic recipe, omitting the butter. When the polenta is thick and creamy, set it over low heat, and whisk in 1/3 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, finely diced. Add 1/4 cup tomato paste (preferably Italian) and the canned diced tomatoes. Add 1/2 tsp. chopped fresh oregano, and salt to taste.
nutrition information (per serving):
based on six servings;
Photo: Scott Phillips