Once I have answered the questions I posted earlier, I move onto more detailed planning of my menu...
I spend some time looking through my cookbooks, magazines (Living, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Every Day Food) and browsing websites like FoodNetwork.com, finedinings.com, epicurious.com and foodandwine.com looking for recipe ideas. I also have an extensive list of bookmarked recipes that I have saved while browsing. Usually one or two recipes will stand out and drive the rest of the menu. I almost always have a list of more recipes than I can serve so I gather them up and use the following points to narrow down the items.
I like to make sure I have hot, cold and room temperature items. This gives variety for the guests as well as ease of preparation for me. The cold and room temp appetizers can usually be made ahead, and warm items can either be made at the last minute or kept warm in a buffet server or crockpot. I received a buffet server a few years ago for Christmas and that was one of the best gifts to make entertaining easier! It does an excellent job of keeping the food warm without drying it out. (Not sure how well it would work for crispy or fried items.)
Another thing I look out for is variety of color and texture. Sure I can add color with serving platters but who wants to end up with a plate of all white foods, or any other color for that matter! Remember we eat with our eyes first. I also don't want to serve foods that all have the texture of baby food, or crunchy potato chips.
It's also a good idea to have a mix of "light" and "heavy" dishes. I don't want everyone to feel like they have to roll out the door, but I also want to make sure everyone has enough. I like to mix in few healthy items too. Entertaining doesn't have to mean only high calorie foods, I think mixing a few indulgent foods with healthy items is the way to go.
Variety is another thing to watch out for. It seems like repeating flavors occur sometimes when I'm gathering recipes. Do I want 3 different recipes with gorgonzola cheese? Not really. If I do use the same flavor twice I try to make sure it is in two different ways, for example savory and sweet, or with different flavor combinations. Sometimes having a major flavor in one item and the same flavor in a minor way in another item helps tie things together.
I also make sure I have vegetarian options, for my vegetarian friends.
For the cookie exchange, we will have plenty of sweets, so I'm sticking to primarily savory items. And I'll want to make sure we have enough substance. Here's what I'm thinking so far...
Spinach Phyllo Triangles
Gorgonzola/Onion Appetizer or Portobellas w/Corn Salsa
Now I'll start looking for specific recipes for each of these...