This is not to be confused with “Free-Range” chicken dinner.  I don’t think the chicken I made tonight, which was, in fact, free — economically speaking — was a “free-range” chicken.  By the way, have I ever mentioned to you that when I was a kid and the term “free-range chicken” started becoming trendy, my sister D. and I conjured up images of chickens with saber teeth who had evolved to fend off the predators we assumed would be a natural hazard of all that ranging freely?  To this day, whenever somebody refers to a “free-range” anything, D. and I use our fingers to make saber teeth at each other behind the speakers’ backs.

But I digress.

Tonight I made a free chicken for dinner, because the extraordinarily awesome folks at my local Whole Foods Market emailed me and asked if I’d be up for a little challenge.  They’re currently running a 99 cent Madness Sale on whole chickens, baguette, and organic red grapes (that would be the per-pound price on the chickens and grapes).  If they were to provide me with the goods, would I be willing to create a meal revolving around those three ingredients?

Um…do I LOOK like a girl who would turn down free groceries?  (The answer is no.  No, I don’t.  I am neither dripping with diamonds nor completely insane.)

So taking P. along as my loyal sidekick/pretend car-grocery-cart driver, I hustled it over to Whole Foods this afternoon to pick up my bag of stuff.  There were a million different directions running through my head — after all, there’s so much you can do with simple ingredients like chicken and bread! — but I ultimately decided that since RRG has always been about doing food that’s accessible, family-friendly, and not too fussy to put together, I was going to go with something fairly easy that would SEEM a little upscale.  You know, the kind of thing that your 3-year-old will happily eat, but you could totally serve to your boss for an impromptu dinner party?  And you could even put the back of your hand to your forehead in total smug knowledge that it’s all a big act, because the dinner practically cooked itself?

Yeah.  That’s what this is like.  I went with the theme of our hands-down family favorite, the Sunday Roast Chicken, but gussied up with some unique flavors.  I could have made a bona fide stuffing with the bread, but honestly, I’m not a huge fan of stuffing poultry with things you intend to actually eat — I’m cautious about the food safety aspect of it.  Plus, EASY was the order of the day.  So I opted instead for gorgeous golden croutons that steeped in the drippings from the chicken.  Or, in other words, hunks of bread that kind of fried themselves in chicken fat and herb butter.  I topped the whole thing off with a simple but dressy kind of grape and onion marmalade, the way you dress up your favorite jeans with a pair of heels and a blazer.

A big green salad was all we felt we needed alongside all this richness.  You could certainly do something fussier if you wanted to, but it just didn’t seem like something the dish demanded.  I mean: Chicken.  Awesomely chicken-y croutons.  Grape and onion marmalade.  Salad.  That’s enough effort for a Sunday afternoon, no?

Orange-Tarragon Roast Chicken with Roasted Grapes, Croutons, and Grape-Onion Marmalade

1 4-5 lb. chicken, giblets removed, rinsed and thoroughly patted dry
1 navel orange
1 head garlic
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon each chopped fresh rosemary and chopped fresh tarragon
2 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
6 tablespoons softened unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil

4 cups cubed (about 1/2 inch) baguette or other crusty bread
1 1/2 cups red grapes
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cups thinly sliced onion
2 1/2 cups halved red grapes
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  To prepare the chicken, zest the orange and place the zest in a small bowl.  Set aside.  Quarter the orange.  Cut the head of garlic in half crosswise, exposing the centers of the cloves.  Stuff the cavity of the chicken with the orange quarters, the halves of the head of garlic, and the sprig of rosemary.
To the orange zest in the small bowl, add the chopped fresh rosemary, fresh tarragon, salt, and pepper.  Add the softened butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil.  Use a small fork to mash the ingredients together until they are well combined.
Run your fingers between the skin of the chicken and the meat underneath, loosening the skin carefully but not tearing it.  Place a generous amount of the compound butter mixture underneath the chicken skin and massage to distribute it all over the breast meat and down to the drumsticks.  Rub the remaining butter mixture all over the outside of the chicken skin before placing in a 400 degree oven.
While the chicken is roasting, make the marmalade: In a large skillet over medium-low heat, melt the butter and olive oil together.  Add the thinly sliced onions and the grapes.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper and stir in the honey.  Allow the mixture to cook slowly for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the chopped rosemary and cook over medium-low heat for another 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally (keep an eye on it!), until the onions are very well caramelized and the grapes have melted into the onions.  Add the balsamic vinegar, stir thoroughly, and allow the marmalade to cook for another 5-7 minutes to mellow some of the bite of the vinegar.  Set aside.
Roast the chicken at 400 degrees for an hour and fifteen minutes to an hour and twenty minutes, until the juices run clear.  Twenty minutes before the end of roasting, make the croutons: Place the bread cubes, grapes, tarragon, salt, and pepper in a large bowl.  Drizzle with the olive oil and toss to coat.  Pour the crouton mixture directly into the hot roasting pan and quickly stir, coating the bread cubes with the drippings from the chicken.  Allow the bread and grapes to roast along with the chicken for the last 20 minutes, until the bread is golden brown and toasted and the grapes are soft.
When the chicken is cooked, remove from the oven.  Take the chicken out of the roasting pan and place on a cutting board; tent with foil and allow the chicken to rest for about 15 minutes.  Leave the croutons in the roasting pan and cover with foil to keep warm.
Carve the chicken and serve alongside the croutons with roasted grapes, with a generous spoonful of the grape and onion marmalade.