The secret to luxurious creamy polenta is plenty of liquid, a bit of cooking time (about 45 minutes), and less stirring than you would think. Make sure you have a heavy (not thin) 3-quart saucepan; if nonstick, even better. I use a balloon whisk to both mix and stir.

Many polenta recipes advise you to bring the water to a boil and whisk in the cornmeal in a steady stream, supposedly to avoid lumps. I have always whisked my cornmeal and (cool) water together in the pan before putting the pan on the heat (which I think is much easier), and I have no problems with lumps.

You’ll want to stir (with the whisk) pretty regularly while the water and cornmeal mixture is first coming to a simmer; then you’ll want to turn the heat down to the low side of medium low and cook the mixture slowly so that it thickens gently. As the grains cook, they release starch and soften (you can see that in the water before the mixture thickens a lot), and you need the liquid and the time to get both a great texture and the ideal flavor. With practice you’ll know when you’ve reached an ideal final texture (thick but not quite pulling away from the sides of the pan), but rest assured there is plenty of wiggle room. The polenta will be loosely spoonable (or begrudgingly pourable!) when hot but will begin to firm up as it cools.

I like to add a bit of butter and a generous amount of Parmigiano right at the end of cooking before using the polenta as a bed for just about anything that comes with a little sauce, from Simple Sautéed Bay Scallops with Lemon-Orange Pan Sauce (or Balsamic Butter Sauce) to braised chicken to Mahogany Mushrooms

Any leftovers go straight into a little baking dish and get heated up the next day, sometimes with a bit more Parmigiano sprinkled on top. That bubbly little casserole is a great leftover gift to give yourself.

One last tip: You can hold the polenta for a short time if you want to make it ahead for a party. Keep it covered and pop it back over low heat every ten or 15 minutes and give it a stir to keep it from getting too stiff. If necessary, add a bit of liquid (water, half 'n' half or cream) to loosen it up. You can also hold polenta in a double-boiler setup. 

Makes 4 servings.

1 cup medium-grind corn meal
4 cups water
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, more to taste
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano

1. In a large saucepan, whisk the cornmeal, water, and 1½ teaspoons salt together. (Whisk thoroughly before putting the pan on the heat.) Put the pan over medium-high heat and bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring pretty much all the time at first.

2. Reduce the heat to the low side of medium-low and cook very gently, stirring every minute or two but not constantly, for between 30 to 40 minutes more, until a thick, creamy consistency is reached. 

3. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the butter and cheese. Taste (spoon out a little bit and let it cool first – it will be very hot) and add more salt if desired.

4. Spoon into serving bowls right away.