Basic polenta is a traditional Northern Italian dish that is the basis for a multitude of dishes. Served soft or firm, it's incredibly comforting, filling, and pretty easy to prepare.
Bring the water to a boil in a deep pot. Add the salt and bring the heat down to medium. Add the cornmeal very slowly, almost in a trickle or, as the Italians say, a doccia, “like a shower." This gradual introduction of cornmeal to the boiling water prevents lumps from forming. Keep the polenta at a constant simmer and, from the instant the cornmeal is added to the water, continuously stir it with a long-handled wooden spoon or whisk, always in the same direction. After all the cornmeal is absorbed, continue to stir until the polenta is thick and pulls away easily from the sides of the pan. If the polenta is quite thick but still not pulling, add a little more boiling water and continue to stir until it is ready. It should be thick, creamy, and perfectly cooked in 25 to 30 minutes. If serving the polenta loose as-is, pour the hot polenta onto a platter at once, dress according to your recipe, sprinkle with Parmesan, if desired, and serve. If making polenta crostini, pour the hot polenta out onto a clean oiled work surface or rimmed baking sheet. Using a rubber spatula, spread it to a thickness of 1/4 inch. Allow it to set. If desired, refrigerate overnight. Then cut into shapes and grill or fry or bake, as preferred.